More ferry service for Gulf Islands

Increased demand as the B.C. economy re-opens has prompted B.C. Ferries to add sailings to the Southern Gulf Islands.

The corporation announced Tuesday that as of June 9, it will re-open the Long Harbour terminal on Salt Spring Island, resume service between Tsawwassen and Salt Spring, and resume routes between Swartz Bay and the Southern Gulf Islands to winter service levels.

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Spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said B.C. Ferries is in talks with the province over renewing a temporary service-level agreement, with a goal of gradually increasing service.

“We are monitoring traffic closely with a goal to adjust as the province opens up this summer,” she said. “Our priority at this time is to protect the core of the ferry system, the provision of safe, reliable ferry service to British Columbians in a financially sustainable manner.”

B.C. Ferries initially laid off as many as 1,400 workers and drastically cut service, citing an 80 per cent drop in traffic and daily losses of as much as $1.5 million. Most workers were hired back shortly afterwards. Service levels remain slashed, however.

B.C. Ferries had already announced it would be resuming service between Departure Bay in Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay starting today. The four sailings a day from each terminal will operate at 50 per cent capacity, as dictated by Transport Canada to help support physical distancing.

With expanded sailings, B.C. Ferries will recall more of its workers. Marshall said it’s difficult to say when service will next be expanded.

“That’s a tough question. We must balance everything in the public interest. A key priority for us is the health and safety of our customers and employees, and we will strictly adhere to provincial and federal guidelines during this gradual resumption of service,” she said.

“We understand the important role we have to play in British Columbia’s social and economic recovery, and we have a responsibility and obligation to remain a financially sound company that can continue to provide critical transportation to coastal communities.”

B.C. Ferries has been working with the Canadian Ferry Association to push Ottawa for federal help for a sector that has been bleeding money. In a letter to federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau, association president Serge Buy said ferries have in some cases been travelling nearly empty to ensure vital cargo services are maintained.

“Our members have seen revenues decrease while costs remain the same,” he said. “While the ferry sector is prepared to weather economic downturns — and has done so in the past — it cannot be expected to absorb the financial setbacks which have occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The association has been calling for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program to cover provincial and municipal Crown corporations, agencies and entities like B.C. Ferries, and developing a federal aid package of $155 million to partially cover the lost revenue.

B.C. Ferries said bookings for the Tsawwassen-to-Long Harbour route are now open. Bookings made for the Tsawwassen-to- Southern Gulf Islands route between June 9 and June 23 will be cancelled and the reservation fee refunded.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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