Representatives of ferry user groups say they don't share B.C. Ferries' optimism that ferry traffic will rebound despite ever-increasing fares.
"What we're hearing from our communities is the price is having an impact on our travel patterns," said Alison Morse, who represents Bowen Island on the group of local ferry advisory committee chairs.
Travel to most areas served by ferries is "still pointing down," said Morse.
Morse said the ferry advisory group sees increasing fares as a direct contributor to the drop in the number of ferry travellers.
"We're not seeing those people are going to start travelling more," she said.
Traffic on ferries is the worst it's been for between one and two decades, according to figures recently released by the ferry corporation for the fiscal year that ended March 31.
Vehicle traffic dropped 3.5 per cent over the past year, while passenger traffic declined 2.8 per cent over the same time period.
Overall, vehicle traffic is the lowest it's been in 13 years and passenger traffic is the lowest it's been in 21.
In routes served by West Vancouver's Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, ridership to Bowen Island was one of the few bright spots — holding its own over last year's figures. Traffic to the Sunshine Coast was down slightly. But traffic to Vancouver Island was down by four per cent. Travel on most other ferry routes — including the other two major routes to Vancouver Island — was also down.
The low traffic volumes mean the corporation ended its fiscal year with a net loss of $16.5 million.
B.C. Ferries attributed the loss to declining revenues combined with an increase in expenses, including fuel costs.
The ferry corporation doesn't expect that to improve soon, but it is forecasting a return to the black in 2014, assuming that traffic volumes don't continue to fall.
But Morse said ferry users aren't sure that's a safe assumption, unless something is done to keep fare increases in check.
The ferry advisory group believes fares have a bigger impact on traffic than either the global economy or gas prices.
If fares stay high, "people will think twice about taking a trip, or (they'll) look at other options," she said.
That's having an impact on everything from tourism businesses to the demographics of ferry-dependent communities, which are heavily weighted towards retirees, said Morse.
Fares — which have gone up almost 80 per cent on some minor routes and 47 per cent on major routes since the ferry system was privatized nine years ago — are expected to continue increasing over the next several years.
Last month, the province announced it will inject almost $80 million in extra cash into operations of the ferry corporation over five years.
The money is on top of about $150 million in subsidies paid by the province to the ferry corporation each year.