Coastal representatives discuss ferry challenges with government

NANAIMO – Cash to bail out B.C. Ferries' growing problems likely not available.

Representatives of coastal B.C. regional districts found out there is no money available to cure the problems faced by B.C. Ferries.

Nine members of the Coastal Regional District Chairs Group, including Regional District of Nanaimo chairman Joe Stanhope and Sheila Malcolmson, Islands  Trust chairwoman and Gabriola Island trustee, met March 12 with Mary Polak, minister of transportation and infrastructure, and NDP MLAs to discuss the recently released Ferry Consultation Report and concerns the regional districts have with the ferry system and its impact on the lives of coastal B.C. residents.

Polak said that although she recognized the challenges and regarded affordability as a key component of the sustainability of B.C. Ferries, there would be no more funding available this year and probably none in 2014. She also noted there would be service cuts.

Prices for vehicle and passenger fares will rise by 4.1 per cent on average on all B.C. Ferries routes across the fleet on Monday (April 1). Fares will also rise in 2014 (four per cent) and 2015 (3.9 per cent).

Malcolmson said the Islands Trust recognizes the province has competing demands on its budget, but they are going to ask what they think the trust’s communities need.

“We’ve asked for a rollback on the fare increases of 25 per cent,” she said. “That is probably more than the province will be able to find in its budget, but doing that would bring the fare increases over the last 10 years back closer to the rate of inflation and have the traffic start to return.”

As for service cuts,  Malcolmson said it depends on what routes and what types of cuts.

“Islands Trust recognizes there are probably efficiencies out there to find, and we need a much better process to consult with communities on what that would look like,” she said. “But in the big picture, talking about service cuts while fares are continuing to go up more than the rate of inflation feels mean spirited.

“If islanders see that maybe taking some service reductions is going to reduce their fares, that’s a totally different conversation that the way it has been pitched.”

At the meeting with opposition MLAs, which included Maurine Karagianis, opposition ferry critic, (Esquimalt-Metchosin), the district representatives expressed their views on the ferry system’s effects on their regions.

The MLAs advised the group that, if the NDP were to form the next government, they would like to make significant changes in the operations of the coastal ferry service.

Karagianis also said there would have to be a thorough review of the province’s finances before any actions could be put in place.

“They were certainly echoing back the things the coastal chairs around the table were saying as to impacts on communities,” said Malcolmson.