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Commissioner to review ferry model with eye to affordability

Two weeks into the job, B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee has announced he'll review the legislation that governs the provincial ferry system.

"I'll never have fresher eyes than I do today," he told reporters in Victoria this morning.

The Coastal Ferry Act, which the BC Liberal government passed in 2003, has long been criticized for focussing on the financial sustainability of ferry operators while ignoring the public's interest in keeping fares affordable.

As Macatee put it in a May 13 letter to the transportation and infrastructure, Blair Lekstrom, "Considerable public concern is evident with the magnitude of proposed fare increases over the next performance term, and especially so in the northern and minor route areas. Those concerns center around affordability of fares in future, and sustainability of the coastal communities which are ferry dependent.

"Ferry users clearly expect fare increases to be reasonable, affordable and predictable, with a related expectation that the Ferrry Commissioner's office will use its authority to achieve that outcome."

Macatee said the review is his idea. The announcement was, however, handled by the province's ministry of the Attorney General and Lekstrom said he supports the review and looks forward to seeing its results.

The province intends to pass legislation before the end of the legislative session, scheduled to finish June 2, that will allow for the review, Lekstrom said. It will also establish a price cap for 2012 and allow the commissioner to delay by a year the setting of price caps for 2013 to 2016, according to a May 18 letter from Lekstrom to Macatee.

Lekstrom told reporters he understands people are concerned about the affordability and sustainability of the ferry system. The ferry company is doing what the government asked it to do, but is due for a review, he said.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," said NDP ferry critic Gary Coons. "At this point in time we don't need a review to tell families and those that live on islands, in coastal communities and businesses and those that operate tourism activities that fares are too high."

He questioned the timing of the review, given how long there have been concerns about the Coastal Ferry Act.

In her 2009 report on BC Ferries, then comptroller general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland observed, “There is a risk that a focus on the profitability or sustainability of the ferry operator exclusively could be at the expense of the public service mandate of the ferry system . . . To ensure appropriate attention is placed on all intended objectives the province should clarify its expectations, communicate them publicly, and ensure they are incorporated clearly in the B.C. Ferries governance framework and corresponding legislation.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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