Critics pan ferry rate hikes of ‘only’ 1.9 per cent

Stone said the commissioner’s ruling would bring price hikes into alignment with inflation

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said Wednesday he was encouraged by the BC Ferries commissioner’s recommendation to cap fare rate increases at 1.9 per cent in each of the next four years.

But critics of continued price hikes in the wake of recent service cuts had a different reaction.

“People are saying it’s good news, but we’ve been so battered by fare increases for the last three years that it makes 1.9 per cent look good,” said North Island MLA Claire Trevena, the NDP’s transportation critic. “We get another four per cent increase in April (2014), so that’s compounded to six per cent on what we’re already paying over the next 12 months.”

The 1.9 per cent increases would be implemented beginning in April 2016 and continue each year through 2019 as part of BC Ferries’ fourth performance term (PT4). The recommendation by BC Ferries Commissioner Gord Macatee does not affect the 3.9 per cent rate increase scheduled for next month, the last of a series of fare increases totaling 12 per cent from 2013-15.

“It certainly could have been worse, but it’s not great news at all,” said Jim Abram, Strathcona Regional District chair and longtime critic of the BC Ferries corporation. “And the 1.9 per cent is just an average across the entire system. Quadra (Island) could be three per cent and somebody else could be 0.5.”

Stone said the commissioner’s ruling — which is just a preliminary recommendation — would bring price hikes into alignment with inflation, and represents good news for British Columbian’s living in coastal communities.

“It is evidence that the province and BC Ferries’ efforts to find savings and efficiencies are moving price caps in the right direction,” said Stone, addressing the media Wednesday several hours after Macatee released his report.

Stone also suggested Macatee’s report affirmed the government’s steps to control costs and find savings in the coastal ferry system, but at the same time he ruled out closing one of the two large ferry terminals in Nanaimo, despite the commissioner’s instruction to explore that option. He also said he is in discussions with the federal government to increase its subsidy to BC Ferries, which lags behind the federal subsidy to East Coast ferries. But he did not bring up the preferred solution of Abrams and other regional district board chairs to scrap the quasi-private BC Ferries Corporation and return ferries to the transportation ministry.

“What we asked for was to roll the fares back to the 2003 rates,” Abram said, citing a report released during last fall’s Union of BC Municipalities conference. “At that rate it’s still unaffordable, but at the 2015 rate, it’s outrageous.”

Trevena noted the proposed 1.9 per cent rate hike cap is based on an average ridership increase of two per cent. While ridership numbers have plummeted since 2008, Stone said Wednesday that the major routes have enjoyed an increase of 0.64 year-to-date. The Liberal government is also projecting an increase in ridership due to increased tourism resulting from the low Canadian dollar.

“When they talk about a two per cent increase in ridership, they’re looking at tourism,” Trevena said. “But we have people who have lived here for generations who are dependent on ferries.

“I think the government has missed an opportunity on this. They’re looking at funding and trying to keep it low. Instead, I think government could look at BC Ferries in a different light and realize a genuine investment in ferries could bring the province a strong return.”