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Transportation minister not keen on B.C. Ferries plan for airline-like reservations

B.C.
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The ferry Mayne Queen, which serves the Southern Gulf Islands, leaves the Swartz Bay terminal in 2015.

B.C. Ferries needs to look at improving service to coastal communities, but that might not include an overhaul to the corporation’s reservation system to make it function more like booking an airline ticket, says the province’s transportation minister.

Claire Trevena said she has heard clearly that ferries schedules don’t include enough runs at key times to handle the rising traffic volumes to coastal communities such as her home on Quadra Island.

“This is something we’re going to be working on with B.C. Ferries, which is making sure schedules work for communities,” she said in an interview. “I think this is a big problem for communities.”

The previous Liberal government cut back sailings on minor routes in 2013, to help B.C. Ferries stem financial losses caused by rising fuel prices and slumping passenger numbers. Since then, the corporation’s finances have largely turned around, although it is unclear whether the new NDP government is considering restoring all the cuts made in 2013.

One idea that Trevena said she is not keen to pursue is B.C. Ferries’ proposal to rework its reservation system so that passengers who book in advance would not have to pay a reservation fee. It would mirror the airline industry, allowing for discounted off-peak fares and the ability to have different fares depending on when passengers travel.

“They keep talking about this airline model and I’ve got to say I’m quite concerned about it,” said Trevena. “The fact that the earlier you buy your ticket the cheaper it can be, and then if you just roll up … and pay extra because you are arriving late, I perceive that as problematic, because it’s a highway system, it isn’t an airplane system.”

Trevena launched a review of ferry services in January that will examine the regulatory model of setting price caps, as well as find ways to cut costs without affecting services. The review, due June 30, will examine the quasi-private structure of B.C. Ferries, but won’t consider the governance of the corporation, nor will it bring B.C. Ferries into the Ministry of Transportation.

“What I’ve been saying very clearly is that ferries are part of our marine highway,” Trevena said.

That’s not good enough, said Jim Abram, a coastal ferry advocate and a director for the Strathcona Regional District, who helped organize a petition delivered to the legislature to bring the ferry corporation inside government. Trevena and Premier John Horgan had left the clear impression from their comments while in Opposition and prior to the election that ferries would be moved back to direct provincial control, he said.

“I’m very upset they did not deal with governance, and they should have,” said Abram, adding that it is backwards to look for savings and details without first looking at how ferries are run.

“They are trying to compensate with the review because I guess they felt they have to give the public something, and a review is better than nothing. But there have been 14 complete reviews of B.C. Ferries since 2003. Do we need another review?”

The government is following through on a promise to roll back fares on northern and minor routes by 15 per cent as of April 1, and freeze fares on the main Vancouver Island to Lower Mainland sailings. As well, it is restoring a free fare program for seniors who ride Monday to Thursdays, which was reduced to a half-rate discount in 2013.

While in Opposition, Trevena was sharply critical of what she had called the “cruise ship” amenities on B.C. Ferries being unnecessarily posh and driving up costs. B.C. Ferries maintains that its gift shop, restaurants and other services make money and help to drive down fares.

Trevena said she still believes the ferries are too opulent, but that she is stuck with the decisions the previous government made because the ferries are being built overseas in places such as Germany.

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