Instead of cutting back sailings and raising fares to the Sunshine Coast, B.C. Ferries needs to go full astern — because the Coast economy is already floundering under the company’s current direction.
That was the message presented to the provincial government’s coastal ferries consultation panel by dozens of presenters during almost five hours of testimony in Gibsons on Dec. 1.
Composed of two civil servants from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) and two B.C. Ferries executives, the panel is visiting about 40 communities looking to find $26 million in cuts to the coastal ferry service.
What they heard at the two Gibsons sessions was that high fares and inadequate sailing schedules have reduced ferry ridership, damaged tourism, restricted economic growth, forced commuters to move back to Vancouver, isolated families and placed an unfair burden on every Coast resident.
“You are hurting the Sunshine Coast,” realtor Kenan MacKenzie told the panel. “While other areas of the province have seen an appreciation in their population, we are not maintaining our population on the Sunshine Coast presently, and that’s a direct result of the overbalance in the cost of getting back and forth.”
“In the last five years, tourism has been down,” said Diane Fisher, who co-owns a studio in Davis Bay, “and a lot of the responsibility goes to the ferry system. A lot of the B&Bs feel the same. Who else in B.C. pays that $60 to go such a short distance? We are hostage here to a schedule where you can’t come back at night.”
“I came from a community in Nelson where the ferry is free, and the ridership is right up there,” said Gail Kuhlmann, who moved to Gibsons five months ago and called it “ridiculous” that the last sailing out of Horseshoe Bay is scheduled at 9:15 p.m. “I feel I’m being taxed double, triple, quadruple by living here.”
In its position paper, read by Coun. Mike Shanks, the District of Sechelt warned “the economy and quality of life on the Sunshine Coast and other coastal communities are at risk if some affordable solution is not found and implemented soon.”
Many group and individual presenters called on the B.C. government to reinstate the service as a Crown corporation, and speaker after speaker demanded the government fund it as part of the provincial highway system.
“Are you having this discussion with highway users?” Jim Cleghorn, presenting on behalf of the Sechelt and District Chamber of Commerce, asked the panel. “We ferry users are singled out. This needs to be dealt with in the legislature of this province.”
Cleghorn said B.C. Ferries should reduce fares to increase ridership and benefit the communities they serve, “because we cannot pay the capital and finance costs no matter how you slice it.”
“These ferries are our highways,” said Jef Keighley, chair of Sunshine Coast Council of Senior Citizens’ Organization, who noted fare increases “dramatically accelerated” after 2003 when the corporation started operating under a user-pay mandate.
Rising fares and changing schedules, Keighley said, “are strangling our respective communities.”
In a wide-ranging submission, Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) chair Garry Nohr said B.C. Ferries resembles a cruise line and so should act like one by reducing fares at certain times.
“Many who have retired here now have to pay for their grandchildren to visit them, as it is too expensive for their adult children to come to the Coast as an entire family,” Nohr said. “In my case, visits from my family are now twice a year at most, for which I pay. Visits used to average five per year, and I did not pay.”
Changing the ferry schedule three times a year, Nohr said, disrupts more than 300 commuters and throws off the SCRD transit schedule, so that “many young families give up on the constant change and move back to the mainland.”
“You’re choking the gates off to people coming in,” resident Ernie Turner concurred, saying his family has talked about moving back to Vancouver because “all of my friends are saying it’s too expensive to come over.”
District of Sechelt Coun. Alice Lutes said Experience Cards are unobtainable for low or fixed-income residents.
“They’re paying more than people who can afford to travel regularly. That’s not fair,” Lutes said.
Donna Shugar, SCRD director for Roberts Creek, told the panel that children who ride the Coast ferry have to pay full adult fares when they reach age 11.
“This is outrageous, that there is no youth fare,” Shugar said. “I don’t know of any other circumstance where 11 year olds are considered to be adults and paying adult fares.”
With many speakers drawing comparisons to the free inland ferry service, MOTI assistant deputy minister Kevin Richter pointed out the subsidy for inland ferries is slightly less than for the larger and more complex coastal service.
But Richter’s analysis “fails to mention that there is an alternative route for the people who use the inland ferries, and that’s also a subsidy,” Shugar said. “We do not have an alternate route. This is an essential service. It’s not discretionary on the Sunshine Coast.”
The lower subsidy for inland routes “is no excuse for them to have free ferries,” said Elizabeth Nordlund, a Gibsons business owner, who added that it also wasn’t fair that Sunshine Coast passengers subsidize less profitable coastal routes.
“We’re tired of subsidizing all the ferries up and down the coast,” she said.
Bill Conway, who rides the ferry with a seeing-eye dog, noted that during profitable years fares were never lowered. When Richter replied to a question saying, “It’s how you view the ferry system, whether you view it as a highway,” Conway fired back: “Our ferry system, sir, is the highway.”
Richter, smiling, did not argue the point.
The uniformity of the message was noted by Powell River - Sunshine Coast NDP MLA Nicholas Simons during the morning session that drew about 55 registered participants.
“It’s rather uncomfortable being in a room with people who think alike, and some of you are kind of right of centre and you’re agreeing with me,” he said.
The deadline for submissions on the coastal ferry consultation is Dec. 21. Feedback forms are available at www.coastalferriesengagement.ca or written submissions can be mailed to P.O. Box 2223, Vancouver Main, Vancouver, B.C., V6B 3W2.