Seniors, commuters, business owners and local government leaders blasted the province’s planned cuts to BC Ferries during a sometimes-raucous pubic engagement session in Gibsons last Saturday that drew about 300 people.
Lining up in the gym at Elphinstone Secondary School on Nov. 30, speakers delivered virtually the same message as last year when the same panel of provincial civil servants and BC Ferries managers visited Gibsons to consult on the future of the ferry service.
This time, however, the bitterness was intensified as speakers shot down the proposed 50 per cent cut to the seniors’ passenger discount, the elimination of some 6:20 a.m. Sunday sailings on Route 3 (Langdale to Horseshoe Bay) and the engagement process itself.
“This is a sham process,” one woman said. “We all know it. We all know that nothing will change as a result of us standing here.”
“We are outraged at this disgraceful and farcical engagement process,” said Jef Keighley, chair of Sunshine Coast Senior Citizens. “We are not here today to engage in a discussion as to how we tweak the manner of our own execution. We are here to tell the provincial government to stop the blood-letting!”
In contrast to planned fare increases during the next two years, Keighley’s group called for fares to be reduced by 30 per cent.
Like last year, speakers argued that the current business model for BC Ferries fails to recognize the service as an essential part of the highway system, penalizing communities with high fares and limited sailings that damage their economic and social viability.
“The future of our communities is at stake,” said Jim Cleghorn, past-president of the Sechelt and District Chamber of Commerce, which is advocating an immediate across-the-board 25 per cent cut in fares. “In 10 years fares have gone through the roof and ridership has gone through the floor. Clearly this is not a sustainable model.”
Addressing the province’s plan to reduce costs, senior Fran Miller said she was “honestly shocked” to learn about the proposed seniors’ discount cut, given the high number of seniors living in coastal communities, with “most of us on fixed incomes.”
Seniors who use the Monday-to-Thursday discount and drive on the ferry pay full fare for their vehicles, “and you’re going to lose that,” Miller told the panel, saying the cut should also be applied to retired ferry workers, who ride free.
Another woman called the cut a “cynical ploy” that would not result in any of the $6 million in projected savings.
“It’s wrong that you do your cost-cutting on the backs of seniors,” she said. “There’s no intelligence behind this.”
Sunshine Coast Regional District chair Garry Nohr urged the province to dump the proposed cut to the seniors’ discount “before the protests lead to the turmoil that the HST did.”
Commuters, including a paramedic, and a boy who travels to Squamish on Sundays during the winter for target shooting were among those who said they would be adversely affected by plans to cut the first round-trip Sunday sailing in off-peak season.
Asked by Route 3 ferry advisory committee (FAC) chair Barry Cavens whether the 6:20 a.m. Sunday cancellation was “a given,” Kevin Richter, assistant deputy minister with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, said: “No. We’re here to hear from the community what the impacts will be.”
Cavens noted that travel to work for commuters on the first Sunday sailing “is not discretionary,” and said those passengers should have been surveyed “before you make high-level pronouncements of a done deal.”
Longtime FAC member Jakob Knaus estimated the Sunday sailing cut would put 50 people out of work.
On the engagement process, realtor Kenan MacKenzie asked panel members if they could name one suggestion from the community that had been enacted by BC Ferries.
BC Ferries’ director of strategic planning David Hendry said one local concern — the absence of an overhead walkway at the Langdale terminal — was being addressed in the master plan for terminal upgrades.
“Excuse me,” said a woman, “but we’ll all be dead before that happens.”
MacKenzie said the answer proved that nothing the community had said was acted on.
“Fares and costs is the number one thing the community came back to you with and we get cuts and increases,” he said. “There’s a handful of people in this room under 50 years old. You’re killing this community.”
He asked the panel to take that message back to Victoria.
Throughout the event, participants complained of the poor sound system, which made parts or all of several speakers’ presentations unintelligible. In some cases, consultant Judy Kirk summarized the comments.
Adding a note of levity, Beverley Nelson sang an original song about the BC Ferries “mess,” set to the tune of Stormy Weather.