Transportation minister, critics disagree on ferry ridership analysis

B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone just doesn’t get it, say critics of his “dismissive” response to a study that blames B.C. Ferries’ fare increases for a $2.3-billion drop in provincial economic activity.

The 97-page Socioeconomic Impact Analysis of B.C. Ferries by Peter Larose of Larose Research and Strategy will be tabled today at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual convention in Whistler.

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On Wednesday, about 1,000 UBCM delegates are set to vote on a recommendation to roll back ferry fares four per cent to pre-November 2013 rates.

Stone called the report irresponsible, speculative, selective in its comparisons and unsubstantiated in some of its chief findings.

Critics, in turn, describe Stone’s response as face-saving, obtuse, unrealistic and disappointing.

The report estimated that 31 million passengers in the last decade decided not to travel on ferries due to increased fares.

That led to an overall decline of 11 per cent in passenger travel instead of an increase of the 19 per cent expected had fares risen only with inflation.

Stone said the report’s analysis did not adequately account for other factors that may have influenced the drop, such as the global economic downturn, higher Canadian dollar, and U.S. passport requirements for travel to and from Canada that have cut overnight trips from the U.S., and communications improvements that have reduced business travel. Moreover, he noted, gas prices have also increased.

Stone noted that air traffic between Victoria and Vancouver harbours dropped 31 per cent between 2007 and 2012.

“The estimated ferry-traffic increases of 19 per cent seem unrealistic given the relatively flat ferry-traffic levels between the mid-1990s and 2003 and population growth for ferry-dependent areas,” Stone said. “The population for Vancouver Island grew by seven per cent since 2003, while the north coast actually declined by 10 per cent.”

He also noted that ferry-based communities are home to more older people — those 55 and over now account for 37 per cent of the population — who travel less than their younger counterparts.

But the report argues that if fare increases had been held to the rate of inflation from 2003 to 2013, there would have been 25.7 million passengers last year compared to actual ridership of 19.9 million.

Brian Hollingshead, chairman of the Southern Gulf Islands Ferry Advisory Committee, said the minister’s comments sound dismissive, especially since the province has not addressed the wide range of economic factors that affect ferry use and are, in turn, affected by ridership.

“What he did say was based more on attacking the bits and pieces of the report rather than dealing with the substance of it,” Hollingshead said. “By virtue of the province never having done any of this impact analysis in the last 10 years, he really has no substance to say whether the numbers are too high or too low.”

Claire Moglove of Campbell River, a UBCM vice-president, said that while UBCM stands by the report it commissioned, it would welcome the minister ordering another independent report, given that he disputes the figures.

Even if the drop in economic activity was less than $2.3 billion, “it’s still a huge problem,” Moglove said. Ferry-fare hikes have hurt coastal communities and their impact on the provincewide economy hasn’t been part of the conversation with government thus far, she said.

The UBCM and other groups on Vancouver Island have been asking the provincial government to do a study on the impact for almost a year, she added. The study is meant as a first step in the process of working with the province toward solutions for ferries, she said.

Denman Island resident John Roberts, formerly a director of the Institute of Certified Management Consultants of B.C., said Stone’s letter to UBCM shows the minister wants to put off dealing with the real issues.

“I am amazed at the hypocrisy of his statements,” Roberts wrote. “The UBCM did indeed show leadership, as the only organization that has undertaken an impact analysis of B.C. Ferries. Instead of criticizing their work, the minister should be using it as the starting point for truly strategic thinking.”

Royal Roads professor Phillip Vannini spent four years studying the role of B.C. Ferries and concluded that “constant and uncontrolled rise in ferry fares has had a negative impact on the province's economy.”

Just about anyone would agree, except politicians invested in “face-saving,” Vannini said.

Stone’s “ornery rhetoric” demonstrates that the current government finds realities that contradict its views and actions to be irksome, he said. “What exactly is irresponsible about this study? The fact that someone bothered to study the impact of social policy?”

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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