Special Report on B.C. Ferries – Part 3: A lifeline to the mainland

B.C. Ferries impacts everything from food prices to tourism for Vancouver Islanders

Passengers enjoy the view on board the B.C. Ferries vessel Spirit of British Columbia during a sailing from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen.

Passengers enjoy the view on board the B.C. Ferries vessel Spirit of British Columbia during a sailing from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen.

Part 3

For more than a year, Jessica Carr spent her Saturday afternoons weaving through Vancouver traffic to make the 7 p.m. ferry at Tsawwassen.

Her work schedule meant public transit wasn’t an option, unless she wanted to show up at midnight to meet her Victoria-based boyfriend on the other side.

“Every weekend, back and forth,” she recalled of the seven-hour round trip.

Although walk-on fares on the major B.C. Ferries routes aren’t outrageous – passengers currently pay $15.10 on the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen run – Carr noticed the impact of the bi-weekly travel on her monthly budget.

“The ferry cost alone is $30 round trip, never mind the parking you have to pay, which is $20 or $30 each weekend,” she said. Paying to take her vehicle over wasn’t even a consideration, she added.

Since moving to Victoria last March, Carr estimates she’s saving at least $120 a month. “My weekends are no longer dictated by the ferry schedule, just looming in the back of my mind,” she said.

As Capital Region residents know all too well, the cost of ferries has an inevitable impact on everything from the cost of goods to incoming tourism dollars.

With fares set to increase an average of 12 per cent over the next three years, even B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee has admitted ferry users have reached a “tipping point” of affordability.

The province, which binds B.C. Ferries to a minimum service level on each route, is in the early stages of consultation with coastal communities, trying to figure out how to cut $30 million in costs from its roughly 185,000 annual sailings on both the major and minor routes.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak said $9 million in cuts have already been identified, beginning with 98 sailings on low-ridership departures between Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen and Duke Point-Tsawwassen.

It’s those changes that people like Trevor Sawkins will be watching closely.

As CEO of Cold Star Freight Systems, Sawkins oversees the movement of more than 23,000 kilograms of frozen and fresh food each day. His trucks make 50 round trips between the Mainland and Vancouver Island each week.

“There really is only a three- or four-day supply (of fresh food) on Vancouver Island at any given time,” he said.

While rising fares and reduced sailings aren’t likely to affect Cold Star’s bottom line, the increased costs are passed on to customers, meaning products that originate off-Island end up costing more, Sawkins said.

“If the cost of food is going up, it may change what is being eaten, as well.”

The advantage for local producers, he said, is that they gain a competitive price advantage on the Island. “The downside is they can’t expand their food industry beyond the Island.”

The B.C. Trucking Association had its biggest beef with B.C. Ferries ironed out when the ferry commissioner set predictable price caps on rising fares earlier this year.

“Often, (fares) are the largest part of our cost structure. So, if they’re giving us a fair bit of time to react, that’s definitely helpful for the trucking business. Before that, it was on a yearly basis with very limited notice,” said Sawkins, a trucking association board member.

•    •    •

B.C. Ferries fares aren’t excessive when compared to other ferry systems that travel similar distances, Macatee noted in his review of the Coastal Ferry Act.

But he admits direct comparisons are made difficult by a lack of available data from other private companies.

“I know people are feeling the pain of higher fares, but when you dive a little bit further into the issue, our fares aren’t outrageous by world standards,” he said.

Even with the planned fare increases, B.C. residents pay less for ferry travel than residents in Ireland, Massachusetts and New Brunswick, according to the review, published in January.

Only Norway’s government-controlled ferry system is cited as having substantially cheaper fares when priced on distance travelled.

The Norwegian government covers 50 per cent of operating costs for its ferries, while the B.C. government contributed enough to cover roughly 38 per cent of B.C. Ferries’ operating budget last year.

But Macatee warns it isn’t operational costs pushing fares higher, it’s the looming $2.5 billion required to replace 11 vessels in the next 10 to 12 years.

“The ships are wearing out. We either replace them, or they’ll be taken out of service by federal regulators,” he said.

•    •    •

Carr hopes the upcoming changes to B.C. Ferries include better deals for regular commuters between the Island and Lower Mainland.

“It’s ridiculous they don’t have a frequent traveller pass so that you can get a discount (on major routes),” she said.

Minor route residents have access to Experience Cards, which allow for 30-to-40-per-cent savings on fares using a prepaid card.

With ridership declining and fares continuing to rise, something has to happen. A new long-term vision is needed. And right now, what that might look like is anyone’s guess.

To add your voice to the public consultation, visit coastalferriesengagement.ca.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

Past stories in series:

Part 2: Gulf Islanders pay a price

Part 1: A Sea of Change

Intro: B.C. Ferries charts a new course

Just Posted

A section of the rail corridor on Vancouver Island. (Black Press file photo)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Put rail trail right overtop of the tracks

Removing tracks would be a horrendous expense, says letter writer

District of Lantzville Mayor Mark Swain, left, and Snaw-Naw-As Chief Gordon Edwards sign a memorandum of understanding outside Snaw-Naw-As Market on Friday, June 18. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Lantzville and Snaw-Naw-As sign memorandum of understanding

District and First Nation create joint working group

Things are looking up for Vancouver Island as zero COVID-19 cases have been reported for the first time since October. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Island records zero new COVID-19 cases for the first time since October

For the first time since October, the province is reporting zero new… Continue reading

Black Press file photo
RCMP seek suspect in Vancouver Island-wide crime spree

Crimes stretched from Deep Bay to Qualicum, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Youbou

Tilray announces new line of products offering more inexpensive choices for medical cannabis users. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo-based Tilray launches new medical cannabis product line

Symbios brand products offered at ‘better price point’ for medical cannabis products

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Janice Coady, left, Aimee Chalifoux and Linda Milford at a vigil for Amy Watts on Wednesday, June 16, outside Nanaimo city hall. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
‘We need to do better,’ says mother of woman killed in Nanaimo

Vigil held for former outreach worker Amy Watts, whose body was found downtown June 3

Central Okanagan Grade 12 grads are set to get $500 each after a more than $1 million donation from a Kelowna couple. (File photo)
B.C. couple donating $500 to every Grade 12 student in the Okanagan

Anonymous donors identified as Kelowna entrepreneurs Lance and Tammy Torgerson

Rita Coolidge played the main stage at Vancouver Island Musicfest in 2017. (Black Press file photo)
This year’s Vancouver Island MusicFest to virtually showcase beauty of Comox Valley

Returning July 9 through 11 with more than 25 hours of music performances

British Columbia’s premier says he’s received a second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. (Twitter/John Horgan)
B.C. premier gets 2nd dose of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

John Horgan shared a photo of himself on social media Friday afternoon holding a completed vaccination card

A lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS
No winning ticket sold for Friday’s $70 million Lotto Max jackpot

The huge jackpot has remained unclaimed for several weeks now

The B.C. Ministry of Education has announced close to $44 million for the province’s schools for COVID-19 recovery. (News Bulletin file)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school stakeholders say COVID-19 recovery funding can make a difference

B.C. Ministry of Education announces it expects a ‘near-normal’ return to class in September

Regional District of Nanaimo is looking to repair sewage pipe in the Hammond Bay Road area, which was corroded by gas. (Black Press file)
Corroded sewer pipe along Nanaimo’s Hammond Bay Road will cost $5.5 million to fix

Pipe replacement and reinforcement part of $6.9-million infrastructure project

Most Read