Critics not sold on new approach to ferry sustainability

NANAIMO – Infusing B.C. Ferries with cash will help the corporation's bottom line, but doesn't solve the inherent problems.

Infusing B.C. Ferries with cash is a temporary measure to assist the corporation’s bottom line, but critics say it doesn’t solve the inherent problems the service is facing with decreasing ridership and increasing costs.

The province announced this week that B.C. Ferries will receive $79.5 million in taxpayer money over the next four years – 49.6 million up front – to reduce pressure on fare rate increases. Amendments will also be made to the Coastal Ferry Act in response to 24 recommendations made by B.C. Ferries Commissioner Gord Macatee in January.

“That doesn’t get us past the gut issues, which is [B.C. Ferries] is still not a fully transparent, government-controlled Crown corporation or some equivalent,” said Leonard Krog Nanaimo NDP MLA. “The fact is, it is part of our highway system, it’s a very important economic driver and generator for coastal communities, and it needs to be under direct Crown control.”

B.C. Ferries was also told to find $45 million in efficiencies, an effort that will include considerable consultation with coastal communities that rely on the quasi-private corporation. Communities will be asked to present ideas regarding possible service cuts or community contributions to maintain current service levels.

John Hodgkins, a Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee member, said much of the initial $49.6 million will be used to mop up the deficit from last year.

“And because this year’s rates are already fixed, there will likely be a similar deficit at the end of this fiscal year,” said Hodgkins. “That makes us wonder if the remaining money will actually be enough to keep rates down.”

Hodgkins added that while consultation is welcome, the advisory committee will have to take a wait-and-see approach to see how effective that consultation is.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.

While pleased with any consultation opportunities, Krog said the action the Liberal government is taking now is an indication of failed past policy when it comes to B.C. Ferries.

“There is little you can say over the past 11 years that the Liberals have been right on, and the recent changes are just an acknowledgment of how bad their policy was,” he said. “For people on the coast there is a high level of frustration around what has happened with B.C. Ferries. Not quite on par maybe with the HST but close.”

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