B.C. Ferries’ latest round of fare increases and its recent financial figures raise the question that never seems to go away: How can we get the ferry corporation back on track?
In the last three months of last year, the company posted a net loss of $17.2 million, a little better than the $19.2-million loss in the same quarter the year before. Revenue increased, but both vehicle and passenger traffic dropped by just over two per cent.
On April 1, fares will go up by an average of 4.1 per cent. The corporation will announce plans later this year on how it will cut $26 million worth of service.
Those who depend on the ferries for employment or for travel have been pondering its future for years.
It’s a service that Islanders and tourists love and rely on, even if they grouse about prices. The ships, the crews, the amenities are not the problem: It’s the numbers.
Fewer people are riding the ferries and costs are increasing. Between 2006 and 2012, the annual number of buses on the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay route dropped 10,000 from almost 32,000, vehicles dropped by 150,000 from 1.9 million and passengers declined by 476,000 from about 6 million. It’s a big worry because it’s the most profitable route, and the one that subsidizes the smaller, money-losing ones.
The declines hurt Ferries in many ways besides lower fare revenue. With less traffic, the need for reservations goes down, taking another source of revenue with it. Fewer passengers mean less food and merchandise is sold, a $300,000 hit last year.
Commercial users such as bus lines and shipping firms suffer from higher fares, and they pass the costs on to customers, which means higher food costs on the Island.
The frequently heard answer is that cutting fares will get more people to ride, and that will bring revenues up. But there is no guarantee that will work, and once fares are cut, it’s doubly hard to raise them again.
In some cases, no cut in fares would be enough. On some routes, carrying a vehicle on a ferry costs as much as $2,000 more than the fare.
While cutting fares is not the answer, cutting costs can only take us so far. Increasing revenues is still the surest way to financial health.
We can look to the provincial government for some of those revenues. The province shouldn’t pay the whole cost, as is sometimes argued by those who contend the ferries are part of the highway system. Lower Mainland users of the Port Mann Bridge pay tolls, and ferry users cannot expect a free ride.
But the government must abandon the fiction that Ferries can eventually pay its own way. Some level of government support will always be needed.
The decline in ridership could be part of a larger trend. Hotel occupancy has dropped six per cent in Victoria since 2007, according to the Greater Victoria Visitor and Convention Bureau. Canada as a whole has seen a drop of four million foreign visitors between 2002 and 2011, even while tourism is expanding in the rest of the world.
The travel habits of Canadians and foreigners are changing. Perhaps Islanders have everything they need right here. B.C. Ferries has no figures on where its passengers are travelling from, so we don’t know if fewer Islanders are leaving or fewer mainlanders are coming over — or both.
Ferries are essential to life on the islands. To keep them viable, we have to understand why ridership is down and how we can bring it back.
© Copyright 2013