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Public ferry process aimed at finding $30 million in cuts, says minister

The British Columbia government is planning to ask the public where it would like the coastal ferry service to be cut to save money, says the minister responsible.

"This consultation is one we committed to to go out and talk to the public," said Blair Lekstrom, the province's transportation and infrastructure minister. "If people are going to come to the meeting and say we want no changes and we want the rates to go down, that's a non-starter."

The government issued a request for proposals June 19 seeking a consultant to develop and conduct a public engagement process on ferry service.

The intention is to get suggestions from the public on how BC Ferries can reduce its costs by $30 million a year, said Lekstrom.

It makes no sense to have sailings at times when there are few passengers, he said. It might, for example, be a matter of reducing the number of sailings on a hypothetical route from six a day to four, and members of the public may have opinions on which sailings should be kept, he said.

Or they might have suggestions for cheaper alternatives, such as running foot passenger only vessels at some times, he said.

The NDP's critic for ferries, Gary Coons, said the consultation is a delaying tactic and noted that the BC Ferry Commissioner, the Auditor General and the Comptroller General have all reviewed provincial ferry services in recent years.

The ferry company's problems with affordability, dropping ridership and financial losses are well known and it's time for the government to act, he said.

"It seems to be delay, delay, delay," Coons said. "This seems to be somewhat of a stalling tactic and drawing this out until we get closer to an election."

Lekstrom said that if the province didn't consult on what changes are needed, it would be criticized for that. "This is far more specific than what the commissioner was looking at," he said. "This is definitely more in depth."

He hopes to have a report back from the consultant, who's to be hired after the RFP process closes July 10, by fall. "I think this gives us somebody who will co-ordinate this consultation and we'll get on with some decisions."

Lekstrom said he hopes ferry fare increases can be slowed so they stop rising faster than inflation, but acknowledged part of the consultation is letting people know they'll have to expect reduced service.

"Getting more service for less, I can't tell people enough those days are long gone," he said.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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