Jack Knox: Amid ferry angst, fare hikes may be capped

Jack Knox mugshot genericAleah Johnson has a lot riding on B.C. Ferries — or, rather, on who rides the ferries to Saturna Island.

You might have read about her last year. She owns the Wild Thyme Coffee House, an old British double-decker bus that she converted into a roadside café near the island’s Lyall Harbour ferry terminal in 2012.

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It was a big deal when she opened because: A. At 27, she was one of the few young people on an island of grey-hairs; and B. Hers was the first new commercial venture on Saturna, population 300, in 15 years.

Now she’s at a crossroad. Her landlords are selling the land on which her bus is perched. Johnson has turned to GoFundMe crowdfunding to buy the property — a show of faith not only in the business but in the future of an island whose economy depends on tourism.

And man, tourism has taken a beating since B.C. Ferries began jacking up fares in 2003.

Visitor numbers from Vancouver Island aren’t that bad, she says. At $65 return for car, driver and passenger, the voyage from Swartz Bay is doable.

But a similar round-trip from Tsawwassen — so close to Saturna that some can see it from their homes — has soared to $163.60, a figure that will climb again when B.C. Ferries fares rise 3.9 per cent on April 1.

“Vancouver traffic has fallen off the face of the Earth,” Johnson said Wednesday. “A lot of the Vancouver tourism is just gone.”

That story is repeated up and down the coast, businesses complaining that high fares have driven down ridership and choked the economy. Islanders anxiously eye the goings-on at B.C. Ferries the way stockbrokers watch the Dow Jones.

It was against this background that ferries commissioner Gordon Macatee — the B.C. Ferries watchdog — on Wednesday released a series of reports that painted a relatively rosy picture of the corporation’s health. He portrayed a company that has done such a good job of wriggling away in its government-imposed straitjacket that annual fare increases can be limited to 1.9 per cent for the four years beginning April 2016.

Much of the findings reported by Macatee and deputy commissioner Sheldon Stoilen read like an auditor’s version of Mythbusters, which should annoy those who like to moan that Ferries is bloated and inefficient. Among the nuggets:

  • Administrative costs have fallen 15 per cent since 2009.
  • Overtime costs fell 14 per cent.
  • Executive compensation dropped by a whopping $1.2 million, to $1.8 million in 2014 from $3 million in 2009.
  • Of 4,234 employees, 650 — including the 179 who meet the definition of “management” — are exempt from the bargaining unit. Having that many outside of the union “has provided the company with more flexibility to manage overall labour costs.”
  • The B.C. Ferries Vacations sideline has exceeded targets and is helping keep fares down.
  • Fares are also dampened by what critics erroneously think of as money-sucking cruise ship amenities. Earnings from restaurants and gift shops are expected to grow to $49 million next year.
  • Government subsidies are low relative to those in other ferry systems.

All is not sweetness and light. Macatee wants B.C. Ferries to look at whether it really needs three terminals in the Nanaimo area and another three on Salt Spring Island. Can’t decide yes or no unless you do the homework, he says.

The commissioner also wants the corporation to look at lopping $100 million from its $3.1-billion long-term capital plan. He notes that rebuilding the Horseshoe Bay terminal and replacing the six ships that serve it would cost $1.1 billion; would it make sense to build smaller, cheaper vessels and smaller, cheaper docking facilities?

And after congratulating Ferries for being on target with $54 million worth of cuts, Macatee said he wants another $27.6 million worth of “productivity improvements” over the next four-year period.

At what cost? Remember who’s paying for all the nickel and diming (and millioning).

“I can’t even afford to put a brochure on their ferries,” Johnson says. The fee is too high.

Never forget that it’s not about ferries, but the people they serve.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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