Editorial: Ferry ‘break’ insults islanders

The B.C. Liberals have included a “break” for frequent ferry users as part of their newly announced election platform. The promise is a sham and an insult to island dwellers.

Supposedly, the party will “work with B.C. Ferries to develop a loyalty discount program by 2020 that will save money for frequent ferry users.” It takes three years to produce a discount program?

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Until that joyous day arrives (if it ever does), the Liberals have committed to offering “residents of ferry-dependent communities” an income-tax deduction. Please note: We have no idea whether frequent ferry users and residents of ferry-dependent communities are one and the same. No doubt we’ll hear more on that at some future point.

The tax deal works like this: Ferry users will be able to deduct 25 per cent of their fares from their net tax payable to the province, up to a total of $1,000. That works out to a saving of $250 a year.

Really? You’re going to put ferry users through the misery of a complex income-tax manoeuvre to save them a few bucks. Why not just hide $10 bills throughout each ship and let passengers go on a treasure hunt?

It’s clear what is going on here. This is similar to one of those money-back deals that companies offer customers who don’t like their product. They’re counting on most people finding the process too time-consuming to follow through.

That seems the motive here. The Liberals are dangling a form of rebate, knowing it’s too obscure or cumbersome to find an audience.

Otherwise, why not take the obvious step and cut fares? That would cost actual money.

Yet B.C. Ferries is in relatively good shape. In 2015-16 (the last year for which figures are available), the company made an operating profit of $125.6 million.

Because the government loaded a massive debt burden onto the corporation when it was privatized, that operating profit is partially eaten away by interest charges. Even so, after those charges are deducted, there is still a healthy profit of nearly $70 million.

So why this nonsense about loyalty programs and tax deductions? The company could afford to reduce fares by roughly 10 per cent and still break even.

On a round trip between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay, that amounts to about $11.50 for a vehicle, and $3.40 for a foot passenger.

The company might argue that it can’t afford a rate cut, because there are some expensive refits and ship replacements coming up.

But we’ve been over this ground before. Mainland transit services are subsidized to a far greater degree than ferries. The Evergreen extension of the SkyTrain line in Vancouver will cost about $1.4 billion — close to the province’s entire investment in our ferry service.

Yet transit users in Vancouver pay only 40 per cent of the all-in costs; ferry users are charged nearly 70 per cent. Where is the fairness in that?

It is against such a lopsided arrangement that voters on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands will have to weigh this latest Liberal promise. Full disclosure: The Liberals also promised $1 million to improve Wi-Fi service on ferries.

We need to hear from the other parties about what positions they are prepared to take. The NDP ferry critic, Claire Trevena, blasted the Liberals, but did not say what her party has in mind.

Our ferry program is like a long-suffering orphan child — much fussed over and pitied, but never adopted.

Let’s see if we can’t make this election about something that matters to island residents — decent and affordable service to and from the mainland.

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