Special Report on B.C. Ferries – Part 3: A lifeline to the mainland

B.C. Ferries impacts everything from food prices to tourism for Vancouver Islanders

Passengers enjoy the view on board the B.C. Ferries vessel Spirit of British Columbia during a sailing from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen.

Part 3

For more than a year, Jessica Carr spent her Saturday afternoons weaving through Vancouver traffic to make the 7 p.m. ferry at Tsawwassen.

Her work schedule meant public transit wasn’t an option, unless she wanted to show up at midnight to meet her Victoria-based boyfriend on the other side.

“Every weekend, back and forth,” she recalled of the seven-hour round trip.

Although walk-on fares on the major B.C. Ferries routes aren’t outrageous – passengers currently pay $15.10 on the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen run – Carr noticed the impact of the bi-weekly travel on her monthly budget.

“The ferry cost alone is $30 round trip, never mind the parking you have to pay, which is $20 or $30 each weekend,” she said. Paying to take her vehicle over wasn’t even a consideration, she added.

Since moving to Victoria last March, Carr estimates she’s saving at least $120 a month. “My weekends are no longer dictated by the ferry schedule, just looming in the back of my mind,” she said.

As Capital Region residents know all too well, the cost of ferries has an inevitable impact on everything from the cost of goods to incoming tourism dollars.

With fares set to increase an average of 12 per cent over the next three years, even B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee has admitted ferry users have reached a “tipping point” of affordability.

The province, which binds B.C. Ferries to a minimum service level on each route, is in the early stages of consultation with coastal communities, trying to figure out how to cut $30 million in costs from its roughly 185,000 annual sailings on both the major and minor routes.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak said $9 million in cuts have already been identified, beginning with 98 sailings on low-ridership departures between Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen and Duke Point-Tsawwassen.

It’s those changes that people like Trevor Sawkins will be watching closely.

As CEO of Cold Star Freight Systems, Sawkins oversees the movement of more than 23,000 kilograms of frozen and fresh food each day. His trucks make 50 round trips between the Mainland and Vancouver Island each week.

“There really is only a three- or four-day supply (of fresh food) on Vancouver Island at any given time,” he said.

While rising fares and reduced sailings aren’t likely to affect Cold Star’s bottom line, the increased costs are passed on to customers, meaning products that originate off-Island end up costing more, Sawkins said.

“If the cost of food is going up, it may change what is being eaten, as well.”

The advantage for local producers, he said, is that they gain a competitive price advantage on the Island. “The downside is they can’t expand their food industry beyond the Island.”

The B.C. Trucking Association had its biggest beef with B.C. Ferries ironed out when the ferry commissioner set predictable price caps on rising fares earlier this year.

“Often, (fares) are the largest part of our cost structure. So, if they’re giving us a fair bit of time to react, that’s definitely helpful for the trucking business. Before that, it was on a yearly basis with very limited notice,” said Sawkins, a trucking association board member.

•    •    •

B.C. Ferries fares aren’t excessive when compared to other ferry systems that travel similar distances, Macatee noted in his review of the Coastal Ferry Act.

But he admits direct comparisons are made difficult by a lack of available data from other private companies.

“I know people are feeling the pain of higher fares, but when you dive a little bit further into the issue, our fares aren’t outrageous by world standards,” he said.

Even with the planned fare increases, B.C. residents pay less for ferry travel than residents in Ireland, Massachusetts and New Brunswick, according to the review, published in January.

Only Norway’s government-controlled ferry system is cited as having substantially cheaper fares when priced on distance travelled.

The Norwegian government covers 50 per cent of operating costs for its ferries, while the B.C. government contributed enough to cover roughly 38 per cent of B.C. Ferries’ operating budget last year.

But Macatee warns it isn’t operational costs pushing fares higher, it’s the looming $2.5 billion required to replace 11 vessels in the next 10 to 12 years.

“The ships are wearing out. We either replace them, or they’ll be taken out of service by federal regulators,” he said.

•    •    •

Carr hopes the upcoming changes to B.C. Ferries include better deals for regular commuters between the Island and Lower Mainland.

“It’s ridiculous they don’t have a frequent traveller pass so that you can get a discount (on major routes),” she said.

Minor route residents have access to Experience Cards, which allow for 30-to-40-per-cent savings on fares using a prepaid card.

With ridership declining and fares continuing to rise, something has to happen. A new long-term vision is needed. And right now, what that might look like is anyone’s guess.

To add your voice to the public consultation, visit coastalferriesengagement.ca.


Past stories in series:

Part 2: Gulf Islanders pay a price

Part 1: A Sea of Change

Intro: B.C. Ferries charts a new course

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