Performance Term 4: An Opportunity to Reset Ferry Fares

Background:

The British Columbia Ferry Corporation was established in 1958 through the Toll Highways and Bridges Authority. It was a government Crown Corporation to provide public ownership of transportation routes previously serviced by the Canadian Pacific Railway and the private carrier Blackball Ferries.

The government of Premier WAC Bennett established the service in part as a response to labour unrest that led to job action. He declared that a reliable and affordable connection between Vancouver and Victoria constituted an essential service because British Columbians have a right to uninterrupted and affordable transportation services to their communities. Premier WAC Bennett knew that if the provincial economy was to grow that the communities of British Columbia needed to be connected by road, and in the case of coastal communities by ferries, which like bridges and tunnels extended the highway by overcoming natural barriers to the movement of goods, services and people.

In 1961, the Toll Highways and Bridges Authority made the decision to expand the ferry service and purchased the Blackball Ferry Company for $6.6 million dollars integrating it as a part of the BC Ferry Service. This was done to expand government-funded marine transportation service from the original Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay route to include service from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons (Langdale) and to Nanaimo.

On January 1st, 1977 BC Ferries was formed as a government-sanctioned monopoly Crown Corporation to operate the coastal ferry service that was initiated by the Province in 1960. The mandate of the original contract with BC Ferries reads:

The coastal ferry system is integral to economic growth and development in British Columbia, and getting people and goods to their destinations safely, efficiently and on time is essential if British Columbia is to be competitive in the world economy in which it operates.
And
BC Ferries is an integral part of British Columbia’s coastal ferry system, linking Vancouver Island to the mainland of British Columbia and linking many other coastal communities.

In the mid-1980s BC Ferries took over the saltwater branch of the Ministry of Transportation and Highways which ran K-class ferries to service small coastal island communities like Thetis and Penelakut. These privately contracted services administered by the Marine Branch of the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure provided additional services across the Fraser River, and in the interior of the province.

 

Route 20 History:

BC Ferries Route 20 services Thetis and Penelakut Islands. Thetis Island has a permanent population of 350 folks that swells to close to 1000 in the summer months with vacationers and the summer camps for children and teens. Penelakut Island is a First Nation’s community that has a permanent population of approximately 450 members.

Ferry service to Thetis Island and later to Penelakut Island (called Kuper at the time) was the result of an agreement in 1958 by then Transportation Minister Phil Gaglardi and Adam Hunter, a third generation Thetis Island resident. Adam would build a road to Pilkey Point from Clam Bay, a distance of 4 km, and develop 60 building lots in exchange for the ferry. The construction of the road and side roads, which included significant drilling and blasting to get over Moore Hill, was done solely at Adam’s expense. This agreement was further evidence of the commitment of the BC Government to grow the provincial economy through remote community development. In other words the agreement was Thetis Islanders, you build the road and we, the government will provide ferry service at a reasonable cost.

The inaugural ferry run was on March 17, 1959, when the 6 car ferry, the MV Ethel Hunter started service to Thetis Island (see photo below). Service to Penelakut Island began for passengers in 1963, and included vehicles in 1975.

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The cost of the sailing was set by calculating the gas tax that was lost to the province on that 6 km crossing had it been a highway. This was 50 cents one way per vehicle and 12

cents one way per passenger. The setting of the fare structure was part of the governments’ commitment to provide safe, efficient and timely service to the residents of Thetis and Penelakut Islands. Fares stayed at this level for many years. However by 1987 cash fares had risen to $7.80 for car and driver return.

Recent History:

In December of 2002 the then Minister of Transportation (MoT), Judith Reid introduced a new ferries model. According to the MoT news release the revitalized ferry system would result in; improved service and customer choice, guaranteed service levels and fair rates, and economic development and job creation.

Residents and business owners of Thetis and Penelakut Islands were encouraged with the Minister’s 2002 announcement for a ‘new’ ferries model. The promise of economic development and fair rates offered hope for a healthy future for our two ferry dependent communities.

However, the structure that was set up by the government created extreme financial and operational difficulties for BC Ferries and resulting undue hardship for residents and businesses of coastal communities. Basically the government who used to own controlling interest in BC Ferries, which had a book value of $503 million, divested itself of this interest. On April 2nd, 2003, the government issued BC Ferries a debenture for $427.7 million, which BC Ferries promised to pay in cash. The government was issued 75,477 non-voting preferred shares in BC Ferries valued at $1000 per share. On May 27th, 2004, BC Ferries paid the debenture of $427.7 million plus $25 million in interest to the government. This left the BC government with a minor $76 million stake in one of the largest ferry companies in the world. The resulting stagnant funding ($144 million per year in contract service fees) from government and the need to build and replace ships and upgrade terminals, left BC Ferries no choice but to put this burden on ferry users by continually raising fares (the beginning of the governments user pay policy). Within a year of the ‘new’ ferries model announcement, fares began to outstrip CPI growth by more than double on Route 20 (see graph 1). Additionally, overheated fuel costs along with the other operating, capital and overhead expenses drove Route 20 fares up 144%, from 2003 to 2015. This was in contrast to a BC CPI increase of 16% up to the end of 2014.

As fares rose on Route 20 inevitably traffic began to decline. Reduced tourist traffic, less commercial traffic and residential traffic had real estate sales dry up and caused businesses, summer camps and B&B’s to close their doors.

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Current Situation:

As has been stated over and over again – in the Commission report and through the governments ‘engagement’ processes of 2012 and 2013 – the ever-increasing fare level is the primary cause of declining traffic, and related shrinking of our island economies. There can be no question the two are directly related. Moreover, residents of Penelakut Island suffer an additional burden. With high unemployment and reliance on social assistance many band members can not afford to load up an Experience card (minimum buy in is $115), so they pay primarily cash fares which are 30% higher. The Experience card system disproportionately disadvantages low income individuals and families, many of whom do not have a credit card or the cash to load the card. This is a real and daily hardship for these customers that are least able to cope with fares that have long since passed the tipping point of affordability.

The 1.9% preliminary fare cap, while barely approaching the inflation rate, was a welcome departure from earlier fare caps. But like a river overflowing its banks, the rate of increase becomes secondary to the absolute level. The economy of the gulf islands has contracted substantially as a result of ferry fare levels, particularly in the last six or so years. There is no shortage of evidence. We know from the substantial, sustained traffic increases that resulted from removal of the over-height premiums that traffic will respond to significant fare reductions.

Recommendation:

Route 20 Ferry Advisory Committee, on behalf of the residents and businesses of our two communities recommend that in the interests of beginning to restore economic stability and reduce the very real financial hardship to the ferry-dependent coastal communities, that fares on the Minor Routes be reset with a 25% rollback effective April 1st, 2016. This could be achieved through some combination of additional government funding, further BCF efficiencies and service reductions on the 3 Major Routes. We would then expect to see subsequent fare increases in the order of CPI increases in the following years. Such an adjustment would fall, we believe, within the context of balancing the interests of the users and the ferry dependent communities with those of BC Ferries and the Province.

The Province has long since broken its commitment to residents of Route 20 for affordable ferry service. The province alone can reverse the economic decline of all coastal communities. Please, let’s not lose this once-every-four-years opportunity.

Sources:

British Columbia Ferry Corporation and Fiscal Fairness for Ferry-Dependent Communities January 2013. Report prepared by Maradadi Pacific Holdings Ltd.
PT4 Fares, Economies and Sustainability, submitted by the Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs, May, 2015
PT4, Time to Reset Ferry Fares?, submitted by the Southern Gulf Islands Ferry Advisory Committee, April, 2015

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PT4 Fares, Economies and Sustainability

The Fare Cap

MAY 21, 2015 – The Ferry Advisory Committee chairs were pleased, and surprised, with the announcement of the 1.9% preliminary fare cap. Surprised, because with a nominal 2% inflationary increase in expenses, and the substantial capital program, we were expecting a much higher cap. Given the ground rules – existing service levels and assumed continuance of FY2016 service fee – we realize getting to a 1.9% fare cap was a major achievement. Any further reduction that might be considered between April and June would require additional accommodation.

Sustainability

Sustainability, the term, is borrowed from environmental science referring to ‘endurance of systems and processes’. We hear it referred to in terms of sustainability of the coastal ferry service, as if BC Ferries is in danger of no longer ‘enduring’. This seems to us like wondering if UBC or BC Transit or VGH or the Coquihalla Highway will ‘endure’. In fact, we believe that all four of those, as well as BC Ferries, will (and must) endure, hopefully in good health. That good health will depend primarily on adequate funding from governments and ‘customers’. All five are vital elements of the broad community infrastructure. The demise of any is inconceivable.

We are more concerned with the economic sustainability of the ferry-dependent communities served by the Minor and Northern routes, and Route 3. The ferry service is the economic life-line for these communities.

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