Sweeping changes to ferry service for B.C.'s coastal communities will be on the table next month, as the government starts a series of public meetings about cutbacks at cash-strapped B.C. Ferries.
Transportation Minister Mary Polak said Tuesday her ministry will schedule public meetings in ferry-dependent communities, starting in November, to discuss how best to cut millions of dollars in ferry service.
"Ferries cannot continue sustainably to run boats that are consistently only 25 per cent full, or where there are significantly more crew than passengers, or in some cases empty ferries," Polak said in an interview.
"It's just not sustainable. So we have to have these conversations. They will not be easy ones."
Ferry fares are set to rise as much as 12.5 per cent over the next three years, despite an $80-million boost to B.C. Ferries' government subsidy.
The ferry corporation is facing record-low ridership and bleeding red ink on its balance sheet. It has also been ordered to cut service by $30 million over four years, and find $53.2 million in internal efficiencies in such areas as its marketing budget, travel expenses and executive compensation.
The so-called minor ferry routes - for example, those serving Quadra, Denman, Hornby, Thetis, Saturna, Mayne and Galiano islands - are set to take the brunt of the cuts, worth $21 million.
"Those are the routes that lose money," said B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall.
"The major routes don't lose money. You don't want to cut something that's turning a profit."
People in ferry-dependent communities will always require a minimum level of service and what that looks like will be discussed at the community meetings, Polak said.
The time and location of the meetings is being finalized, she said.
It's unclear how long it would take to decide on actual cuts to sailings.
Polak said the goal is for fare increases to eventually be more reflective of increases in inflation or the cost of living. "We're not there yet, and that's why we're going to have to have some difficult conversations about how ferry services are structured."
Independent ferry commissioner Gordon Macatee said eliminating ferry service for commuters who need to get to school and work is not an option.
But he said a constructive conversation could focus on a long-term vision for B.C. Ferries, including whether people want the same types of large new ships or whether the corporation should look at passenger-only service at certain times on key routes.
Reducing ferry service probably won't save as much money as the government hopes because labour costs won't change, said Tony Law, chairman of the Ferry Advisory Committee, representing ferry-dependent communities.
"We certainly don't see significant savings to be made by the nature of the routes and how the contracts are structured," he said.
Increasing the government subsidy isn't the solution, either, Polak said.
"If you don't deal with the losses on routes, if you don't deal with the low ridership and therefore the expense of running some of the boats, you will simply delay the problem," she said.
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