Les Leyne: B.C. Ferries studies which routes to cut

Ferry geeks, of whom there are many, will have a field day with the charts and graphs released Monday to kick off the great debate on the future of the coastal service.

The concise history of fare hikes, for example, will keep every Islander's sense of grievance burning hot and true. Driving onto a boat at Swartz Bay or Departure Bay cost $19.50 in 1987. It costs $65.30 today.

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The chart includes way stations for that trend line. So you can see the New Democratic Party government of the 1990s was mostly responsible for jacking it up to $43 and the B.C. Liberals took it from there to its current level.

The discussion paper cites a 69 per cent increase from 1992 to 2002, and a 52 per cent hike from 2002 to now. The years selected almost match the NDP-Liberal years in power, not by accident.

So any Liberal looking to put the best face on the situation can claim they were comparatively easier on riders, although no one will take that too seriously.

The fare hikes on the minor routes are much worse. Gabriola-Nanaimo jumped 79 per cent mostly under the NDP, and 82 per cent under the Liberals ($7.80 in 1987, $34.05 today, roundtrip).

Ferry commissioner Gord Macatee found 10 months ago that the fares are at the tipping point and are now imposing "significant hardship" on passengers.

But fares aren't the real focus of the discussions kicking off next month. It's service cuts that are front and centre.

People who take part in the consultation are being guided to the idea that reducing service is the best immediate response to the steadily building crisis the ferry service has been sailing into for the past several years.

Macatee, an independent watchdog of the fleet, concluded in his report that the current financial arrangement is unsustainable. Forecasts point to never-ending fare increases and an urgent need for billions in capital spending, he said, recommending a complete rethink of what the ferry service does.

The escalating crisis brought on by higher costs and lower ridership has prompted the government to curb the original fare-increase plans and pour an extra $79 million in subsidies into the service.

B.C. Ferries is chopping $15 million in costs and is saving $4 million in cutting service on the major routes. What's needed to stave off the crisis for another few years is $26 million more in savings.

Macatee's report endorsed the idea of service cuts. Monday's unveiling of the consultation process is the latest step in getting on with them.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak heaped most of the blame for the situation on external forces. B.C. Ferries cut fuel consumption, but the cost is still 140 per cent higher than several years ago, she said.

Everything is on the table, she said. "But if you're going to have lower fares, then you're going to have to address the losses for B.C. Ferries in another way."

Polak said the government wants to "elevate the discussion to the issue of principles."

But what's much more likely at the upcoming meeting is a detailed look by worried coastal residents at the nitty-gritty.

Every community on the coast will be poring over the utilization tables that show how underused many ferries are.

The entire fleet runs at just under 55 per cent capacity, and only the two main routes turn a profit. All the others run millions in the red every year, running as low as just 20 per cent of capacity.

Pages of data were released Monday showing average capacities on every sailing. There are numerous sailings on some northern routes that average between one and five per cent capacity. A few of the late-day weekend sailings average zero.

Macatee held a round of 40 meetings last year while writing his report. The government is planning another 40 in the next several weeks. Eventually, somebody is going to have to make the call, and it's likely to be later, rather than sooner.

Polak said the decisions on route-cutting are unlikely to come before the May 14, 2013 election.

Which leaves it an open question as to who will actually be deciding how to share the pain.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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