Written by Brian Hollingshead
During a conference call with Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claire Trevena on February 22nd FAC Chairs learned that government is increasing service on 10 ferry routes that were cut in 2014, restoring 2,700 round-trip sailings for people living in coastal communities. BC_Ferries_routes_backgrounder Feb 22
“For years people living in coastal communities saw ferry fares increase and services cut,” said Claire Trevena, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. “Quality, affordable ferry services are a necessity not a luxury for people in coastal communities. That’s why we’ve turned the ship around – first by rolling back ferry fares on small coastal routes and now by reversing cuts to services that were making it difficult for people to get around.”
The minister announced these service changes and released the Redlin report, 20180630-review-coastal-ferry-services a comprehensive operating review of the coastal ferry service that identifies opportunities to improve services under the current model.
The ministry has been working with BC Ferries to respond to the BC Ferry Advisory Committee chairs’ request to restore some services cut in 2014 and have reached an agreement to return these services over the next year with the majority starting as early as this spring.
“The Redlin report was very comprehensive with more than 60 recommendations directed to all parties working under the unique and complex coastal ferry governance model,” Trevena said of the document, written by Blair Redlin, special advisor. “One of his recommendations is to establish a long-term vision for ferries and to connect coastal communities in a more integrated manner. This is something my staff and I will be focused on.”
The Province will also be amending the Coastal Ferry Act to implement some of Redlin’s recommendations that will ensure the model is putting people first.
Last April, government improved ferry service by providing funding to BC Ferries to reduce fares on the smaller and northern routes by 15%, freeze fares on the major routes and reinstate the Monday – Thursday 100% discount for seniors’ passenger fares. Fares will continue to be frozen this year.
For a backgrounder on ferry routes, visit: https://news.gov.bc.ca/files/BC_Ferries_routes_backgrounder.pdf
Each year the Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs are brought to Vancouver courtesy of BC Ferries to attend their Annual General Meeting. We take this opportunity to meet with their executive team, the BC Ferry Commissioner and with the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure who is responsible for BC Ferries. Attached are the notes from these meetings, all of which have been approved for distribution by the various parties: BC FAC Chairs Meeting August 2018
FACChairs,It seems we’re witnessing a new normal with the 4.5% vehicle traffic increase over Jan 2017, and 3.3% passenger step-up. These jumps are noteworthy in and of themselves, but are particularly so, given the weather we endured this past Jan. That sort of weather typically discourages anything but the most necessary ferry travel.As we found with most months this past year, traffic is generally up, in the 4% to 6% range. Always, the occasional contrarian route. But not many. Graph 1. The year-to-date stats, (graph 2) are solid and will remain so for the rest of the fiscal year (to Mar 31).
Graphs 3 and 4, show the longer look at Jan traffic for the system and for the Minors is consistent with what we’ve been watching all year, continuation of a three year strong upward trend. This Jan, passenger traffic growth didn’t keep up with vehicle increases. Maybe a concession to our rain-soaked weather?Graph 5 is a picture of the past year’s traffic. May and Jun bucked the trend, but overall, a solid year.Graph 6 presents three messages and a warning . . .1. We went through seven challenging years when steep fare increases and fuel surcharges were the order of the day. Traffic (and our communities) paid the price. While there were other factors, it’s our belief that fares were the principal traffic-depressing factor.2. Traffic has been on a roll for the past three years and it looks like the it’s going to keep rolling that way, barring any dramatic changes in the economy, the value of the dollar or cataclysmic world events. The 15% fare cuts and the return of the free seniors’ fares will stimulate a traffic boost, while the fare freeze on the majors will support continued growth.3 As strong as the traffic growth is, it’s still a long way below where we believe it would have been with even gradual growth resulting from modest fare increases (rate of inflation) since 2003.4. Ferry traffic is approaching uncharted waters, in terms of BCF’s capacity to accommodate the emerging demand on our routes. In the short term, we are going to see more routes, with more sailings, experiencing overloads where they never used to exist. BCF will have some limited means of increasing capacity through schedule tweaking. In other cases, that option is tapped out, and vessel capacity will need to be rethought, meaning larger than like-for-like replacements, two-for-one replacements, redeploying ferries to less demanding routes and accelerating some vessel retirements where the existing ones are no longer up to the job. These are longer term strategies – maybe three to four years – and will be dependent on available funding. The alternative is watching the service of which we’re so proud gradually come undone. This is not a new discussion. Nor is it going away any time soon.Graphs 7 and 8 are reminders that all three of our route groups are seeing the same growth projections. Rte 3 is one of ‘our’ route groups, as it experienced the same fare increases and service debilitating decisions that the rest of us did.Graph 9? Back to the uncharted waters comment.Brian
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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, 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.
20 MARCH 2015 – Chairs of BC’s Ferry Advisory Committees are encouraged by the newly announced 1.9% cap on annual average fare hikes starting in 2016. But they say the small increase fails to address the fundamental problem: the cripplingly high existing fares.
The unavoidable comparison is to the hypothetical camel with the breaking back. The camel has been loaded with 50-pound bales of straw. When the breaking point is reached, there’s little joy in reducing the weight of the next bale to only 10 pounds. The 1.9% increase is that 10-pound bale of straw.
As with the camel, the ferry users’ problem is the burden that preceded the 1.9% increases. It needs to be addressed.
The extraordinary fare increases of the past decade have resulted in traffic collapsing to its lowest level since 1990. The decline in traffic, particularly since 2008, has resulted in a parallel withering of the economic and social vitality of coastal ferry dependent communities. Ferries are the lifeline service for people and for businesses. There is no alternative.
“We watched traffic fall away as fares escalated for the past decade. Our experience tells us that ferry traffic and coastal communities will not and cannot recover until the excessive fare burden is removed,” says Brian Hollingshead, chair of the Southern Gulf Islands FAC. “This means a fare roll-back, not a modest increase.”
If the Province is serious about the economic sustainability of dozens of coastal communities, it’s time to assess the past and future impact on these communities of the current ferry fare regime.
We recognize that fares and funding need to strike a reasonable balance between the interests of the Provincial treasury, BC Ferries and ferry users. “Yet ferry users, who contribute more than half a billion dollars a year in fares, have paid far too high a price,” says Keith Rush of Thetis-Penelakut FAC. “It’s time the load was redistributed to provide some relief for those users who have seen their fares rise as much as 120% in an 18%-inflation period.”
The Commission report shows ferry users are presently paying 100% of BC Ferries operating costs. That’s higher – much higher – than in comparable ferry systems, including Washington State Ferries and Marine Atlantic Ferries, cited in the Commissioner’s Efficiency Review.
We are at a critical juncture. We ask the Government to consider rebalancing the equation by means of a sufficient funding increase to provide a significant fare roll-back. It’s fair, it’s vital.