Editorial: Stop pretending on B.C. Ferries

Calling B.C. Ferries a private corporation doesn’t make it one, no matter how many times you say it. The corporation must be brought back under the government umbrella and operated as part of the provincial highway system as the public service it is.

The ferry service was a Crown corporation from early in its existence until 2003, when the B.C. Liberal government privatized it as B.C. Ferry Services Inc., with the aim of improving service and shielding taxpayers from future debt. BCF was placed under the ownership of the B.C. Ferry Authority, which is governed by a nine-member board of directors and is supposed to be independent.

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But no one is fooled. It was not the BCF chairman but Transportation Minister Todd Stone who announced Wednesday that the provincial government would proceed with cutting ferry costs by eliminating some round-trip sailings and cancelling free passes for seniors. There’s no doubt about who is calling the shots.

A private corporation must make a profit to survive. If B.C. Ferries operated strictly on business principles, it would eliminate unprofitable routes or raise fares to ensure a profit. Of course, either course is unworkable — many coastal and island communities would be fatally affected by unaffordable fares or the elimination of ferry routes.

The B.C. Chamber of Commerce, in a 2013 report, says the relationship between the government and the ferry corporation needs to be fixed. It says that in a traditional business relationship, a buyer and contractor agree on a price for services.

“The relationship between the provincial government … and B.C. Ferries … is flawed because it has strayed from this model,” says the report.

Among its recommendations, the chamber calls for the government to “maintain affordable rates to protect the interests of ratepayers, users and communities.”

That aligns with the stance of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, which has consistently called for B.C. Ferries to be considered an integral part of the province’s transportation system. In a 2011 presentation to Gordon Macatee, B.C. Ferry commissioner, the UBCM says the province should “acknowledge that ferries are an extension of the provincial highway system, integral to connecting all B.C. communities and as such, need to be funded and administered accordingly.”

The chamber report points out that the ferry service has three distinct components: the major ferries such as Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen that are profitable; smaller ferries such as those that serve the Gulf Islands and the Sunshine Coast and contribute significantly to their operating costs; and the northern routes that will not be profitable in the near future.

“[The northern ferries] investment is made for the good of the province as a whole, and the total cost of operating these routes should be paid for by operating subsidy,” says the chamber. “It is inappropriate for residents of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands to pay for a ferry service being operated for the benefit of the entire province.”

Ferries serve about a third of the province’s population, to one degree or another. If the well-being of that third suffers, the rest of the province will be negatively affected. We’re all in this together.

We don’t advocate eliminating all ferry fares — that would not be wise — but fares should be more affordable, and this could be accomplished by spreading the load over the whole province.

Highways, sidewalks, bridges and other public amenities are built and operated for the public good. They enable economies to thrive. Ferries are no different.

To call B.C. Ferries an independent private entity is jiggery-pokery. It operates as a Crown corporation and should be officially regarded as such.

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