Ferries overhaul ends free rides for seniors, cuts trips, adds gambling

The B.C. government is clawing back free ferry passes for seniors, slashing thousands of sailings and introducing slot machines on certain ships in a bid to stem losses at the financially-troubled B.C. Ferries corporation.

The cutbacks and changes will be unpopular, Transportation Minister Todd Stone admitted Monday, but are necessary to achieve $19 million in savings required to keep fares affordable.

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“We recognize there’s going to be some challenges, there’s going to be some pain in the decisions we’ve announced,” said Stone.

B.C. seniors, who can ride the ferry free Monday through Thursday, will be required after April 1 to pay 50 per cent of a normal ticket price, said Stone. Around 1.5 million seniors used free tickets last year. The change will save $6 million, he said. “Everybody has to come to the table and do their part,” said Stone.

Seniors groups blasted the move as unfairly targeting a vulnerable part of the population.

Free passes will continue for certain students, people with medical appointments, B.C. Ferries employees and retired ferry workers, the government said.

Slot machines will be installed on ships on the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, as part of a pilot project to generate revenue, said Stone. “Gaming revenue would also be used to help reduce the pressure on fares,” he said.

B.C. Ferries will make sweeping cuts to low-ridership routes, cancelling eight per cent of total sailings, or 6,895 round trips out of 87,292 annually.

The first cuts begin April 1 and affect most minor coastal routes, usually resulting in cancelled sailings at the start or end of the day.

Cuts will occur to and from Port Hardy, Powell River, Comox, Texada Island, Gabriola Island, Thetis Island, Penelakut, Denman Island, Hornby Island and Quadra Island. Southern Gulf Island routes, including Saltspring, will see schedule adjustments but not cuts, according to government.

Stone said the government is open to “tweaking” cancelled sailings as part of upcoming community consultation, recognizing many island residents use ferries to commute to work.

The Port Hardy-Mid-Coast-Bella Coola route is being eliminated during summer months.

The cuts on minor route will save $14 million. Stone said service to the major routes between Vancouver Island the Lower Mainland will be altered in an undisclosed way before 2016 to save another $4.9 million.

B.C. Ferries is struggling with record-low ridership, mounting debt, ballooning ticket prices and an imminent need for billions of dollars worth of replacements to aging ships and terminals.

The government is paying more than $180 million in subsidies this year, including an $80 million bail-out package spread over four years. Stone refused to increase the subsidy.

“The balance being struck today is the recognition the B.C. taxpayer doesn’t have any more money to put into B.C. Ferries,” he said.

Even with the cutbacks, ferry fares will continue to rise four per cent in 2014 and 3.9 per cent in 2015.

Stone said the long-term goal is to get fare increases linked to the rate of inflation. But he warned there’s as much as $200 million in additional funding pressure facing the ferry corporation in the next five years.

B.C. Ferries will also find savings by standardizing vessels, pursuing liquefied natural gas fuel, modernizing its reservation system, seeking federal capital funding, exploring passenger-only service and considering fares that rise during busier times.

B.C. Ferries will take a long-term look at its two Nanaimo terminals to “assess the viability of the two routes,” said Stone.

NDP ferry critic Claire Trevena called the cuts and changes “absolutely outrageous” and akin to closing highways because there’s not enough vehicle traffic.

“This isn’t a vision for B.C. Ferries,” said Trevena. “This is the destruction of our coastal communities and the destruction of our coastal economy.”

rshaw@timescolonist.com 

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B.C. Ferries news release:
Service adjustments to specific coastal ferry routes

The Province has set an objective of $18.9 million in total net savings to be achieved through service reductions by 2016. The prime focus is on lower-use round trip sailings on the minor routes, and on the higher-cost northern routes, accounting for $14 million in net savings. These service adjustments will be implemented in 2014.

BC Ferries will also be implementing further changes to the major routes prior to April 2016 (Departure Bay to Horseshoe Bay, Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, Tsawwassen to Duke Point) to achieve $4.9 million in savings by 2016. Minor and northern routes will not be affected by these changes.

In addition, analysis will continue on opportunities to achieve additional savings and efficiencies, beyond the initial $4.9 million in reductions announced today, on the major routes, particularly Route 2 (Departure Bay to Horseshoe Bay) and Route 30 (Duke Point to Tsawwassen). Analysis will continue of opportunities to achieve additional savings and efficiencies on Southern Gulf Island routes.

Routes affected:

Langdale - Horseshoe Bay

Annual utilization rate: 54.5 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 2,985

Annual round trip reductions: 40 (1.3 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $200,000

Vesuvius Harbour - Crofton

Annual utilization rate: 35.5 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 5,046

Annual round trip reductions: 605 (12 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $210,000

Earls Cove - Saltery Bay

Annual utilization rate: 26.3 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 2,878

Annual round trip reduction: 365 (12.7 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $750,000

Horseshoe Bay - Bowen Island

Annual utilization rate: 50.7 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 5,569

Annual round trip reductions: 234 (4.2 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $270,000

Tsawwassen - Southern Gulf Islands

Annual utilization rate: 42.2 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 830

Annual round trip reductions: schedule change only; no round trip reductions

Estimated net savings to 2016: $180,000

Port Hardy - Prince Rupert

Annual utilization rate: 39 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 122

Annual round trip reductions: 39 (32 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $3,820,000

Skidegate - Prince Rupert

Annual utilization rate: 42.5 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 191

Annual round trip reductions: 52 (27.2 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $1,900,000

Comox - Powell River

Annual utilization rate: 29.6 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 1,460

Annual round trip reductions: 94 (6.4 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $720,000

Texada Island - Powell River

Annual utilization rate: 25.6 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 3,648

Annual round trip reductions: 834 (22.9 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $950,000

Gabriola Island - Nanaimo Harbour

Annual utilization rate: 45.5 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 5,732

Annual round trip reductions: 834 (14.5 per cent) Estimated net savings to 2016: $800,000

Chemainus - Thetis - Penelakut

Annual utilization rate: 29.1 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 4,380

Annual round trip reductions: 417 (9.5 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $160,000

Buckley Bay - Denman Island

Annual utilization rate: 41.2 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 6,149

Annual round trip reductions: 888 (14.4 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $660,000

Hornby Island - Denman Island

Annual utilization rate: 38.1 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 4,482

Annual round trip reductions: 422 (9.4 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $360,000

Quadra Island - Campbell River

Annual utilization rate: 41.9 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 6,253

Annual round trip reductions: 468 (7.5 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $370,000

Skidegate - Alliford Bay

Annual utilization rate: 20.2 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 4,482

Annual round trip reductions: 1,564 (34.9 per cent)

Estimated net savings to 2016: $1,200,000

Port Hardy - Mid Coast - Bella Coola (summer only)

Annual utilization rate: 29.5 per cent

Annual contracted round trips: 39

Annual round trip reductions: route to be cancelled

Estimated net savings to 2016: $1,450,000

*The current winter connector service by the Nimpkish will be extended year- round, connecting Ocean Falls, Shearwater and Bella Coola to Bella Bella and the north-south Prince Rupert to Port Hardy service.

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