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Ferry advisory group recommends 25 percent fare cut

Not only should British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. and the B.C. government hold future fare increases to the rate of inflation, they should also roll back earlier increases, says the Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs.

"They're at a barrier level now," said Brian Hollingshead, the chair of the Southern Gulf Islands FAC, who suggests a 25 percent price reduction. "I think it has to get back to a significant discount."

A report Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee released Jan. 24 said future fare increases should be held to the rate of inflation. It also noted that while the consumer price index rose 14 percent from 2003 to 2011, fares went up by 47 percent on the major routes between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, 78 percent on the northern routes and 80 percent on the minor routes.

Meanwhile, it said, the government's contributions were stagnant and went up much less than the rate of inflation.

Hollingshead said Macatee wrote a very good report that articulated many of the things people in coastal communities have been saying about the ferry system. Macatee did a good job listening, but to restore confidence in the system will require going further than what the commissioner recommended, he said.

"There's a lot of damage done already," he said. "Our honest opinion is it has to re-set the starting point."

Hollingshead said a 25 percent decrease would still keep the fares higher than they would be if they'd gone up by the rate of inflation since 2003. With ridership declining, unless there's a decrease in fares, "It is on a downhill run and it's not going to change," he said.

Macatee said when he released his report that every 10 percent decrease in fares costs about $50 million a year. The FACCs proposal would therefore require an additional $125 million a year in subsidies to the ferry company. The provincial subsidy is now $150 million a year, with the federal government providing a further $27 million.

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Blair Lekstrom is yet to say what he'll do about the recommendations in Macatee's report.

There is a 4.15 percent fare increase planned for April 1, 2012.

"There's probably not that many of us who are going to have that increase in our income," said Tony Law, the chair of the Hornby-Denman Ferry Advisory Committee. The FACC are already hearing from their communities that fares are already well past the tipping point, he said.

Successive governments have failed to provide enough money to properly fund the ferry system and to minimize fare increases, he said. "There's a lot of catching up to do."

The FACC has a meeting scheduled with Lekstrom for late February.

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

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