We have a world-class ferry system, one of the biggest in the world. The open and transparent consultation and engagement process that is underway will help us ensure that ferry services are affordable and sustainable into the future for B.C. families.
All British Columbians will have an opportunity to make their views known, either during one of the 38 consultation meetings taking place in 30 coastal communities or by visiting the consultation and engagement website at coastalferriesengagement.ca. Copies of the discussion guide and feedback form are being placed in libraries, municipal offices and First Nations band offices throughout coastal communities in B.C. We are doing everything we can to enable a high level of participation in the process.
Like many other ferry systems in the world, our coastal ferry service has experienced a decline in ridership while costs have been increasing. Clearly, this situation demands change. For 22 B.C. Ferry routes, it costs between $5 and $2,000 more for every vehicle carried than the fares charged. Only two routes cover the cost of providing service.
Over the next four years, taxpayers will be contributing almost $800 million to the ferry system. With taxpayer contributions at an all-time high and ongoing cost pressures, we need to find efficiencies and do things differently so our coastal ferry services will be sustainable and dependable over the long term.
The engagement process goes beyond the immediate challenges and the discussion around service levels. This is an opportunity for British Columbians to tell us what kind of ferry system they would like to see in the future.
Reducing fares is often suggested as a simple solution, but in reality, this would result in less revenue overall. While I recognize that lower fares may increase usage, experience shows the additional traffic would not be sufficient to offset the decrease in revenues resulting from lower prices being charged to all travelling passengers.
Some have suggested that it seems obvious that we should just cut those low-utilized sailings. While the utilization levels and costs define the challenge, we need to look past the data for solutions. We have communities, livelihoods and lifestyles at stake here. We know that people in some communities depend on the ferry system to get them to school, to work and to access some essential services.
The challenge is being driven by dollars, but we need to be guided by values that are more difficult to measure. That's what this open consultation process is all about.
As we examine changes to service levels, it is essential that the public take part in the consultation process.
We are asking British Columbians to prioritize six considerations that will help us determine what is important when considering service adjustments.
As the B.C. ferry commissioner indicated in his January 2012 report, all the key stakeholders - taxpayers, B.C. Ferries and ferry users - need to contribute to the solution. B.C. taxpayers have come to the table by adding a further $79.5 million through to 2016. This means the combined federal-provincial taxpayer contribution to support coastal ferry services is $180 million this year.
B.C. Ferry Services has to be more efficient - which it is doing - and ferry users are being asked to contribute through service adjustments.
We are encouraging everyone with an interest in coastal ferry service to attend one of the public sessions or to go online and provide their input. There is no doubt that some tough decisions have to be made and I recognize that different communities will have different needs. There are no easy solutions but we are committed to listening to the public's ideas and working together to ensure our coastal ferry service is sustainable, affordable and efficient into the future.
Mary Polak is B.C.'s minister of transportation and infrastructure.
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