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BC Ferries Boss Defends His Reign

David Hahn parries with critical riders at public meeting.

By Stanley Tromp 1 Jul 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Stanley Tromp is a Vancouver-based journalist.

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Rising fares 'the elephant in the room'

Passengers on smaller BC Ferries routes are suffering, ferries are failing to discourage car usage, and the company's future revenue looks uncertain. And yet BC Ferries is still consulting with the public better than ever.

Those were some of the contrasting points made at a generally amiable yearly public meeting of BC Ferry Services Inc., held at the Simon Fraser University downtown Vancouver campus on June 25.

Of the 40 people in the audience, a few came to the public microphone to raise questions for BC Ferries president and CEO David Hahn.

First up was Tony Law, chair of the coastal communities ferry advisory committee (which coordinates the 12 local ferry advisory groups in B.C.).

"I've been doing this for 12 years and the consultation process is first rate compared to when we started," he began. "Your proactive communication and collaborative problem solving is working."

Yet there were some outstanding problems also. "The elephant in the room is the galloping increase in fares and the decrease in traffic," said Law. "Management in your annual report may have uncertainty on a link between the two, but we have a high degree of certainty."

Cost of fuel, more than fares, hurt traffic: Hahn

Hahn disagreed that fares were the determining factor of how much people travel -- although it might have some impact -- because the larger factor was the skyrocketing fuel prices that discouraged British Columbians from driving.

In its annual report, BC Ferries projected a revenue rise of 10.5 per cent in fiscal 2009/10. Law said "I'm not sure we share that optimism." He urged the province to take more responsibility for the cost of capital replacement.

"There also has to be a new BC Ferries strategy on the minor routes. Without some kind of serious intervention, we foresee serious damage over the next few years to those communities that depend on the ferries."

Hahn replied that "We are a service provider, so we don't make those public policy decisions. The government will make those over the next 30 months or so."

Bus connections need work

One private citizen at the microphone complained that BC Ferries seemed to be resisting the B.C. government’'s policy of weaning more people away from driving cars, for the goal of environmental sustainability.

He urged the company to coordinate its schedules more closely with those of BC Transit. If a bus approaching a ferry is a few minutes late, he said, the ferry is never delayed for those passengers, and BC Ferries should create a new "transit czar" who would look at all transit linkages.

"It seems you have a fear of people taking public transit," he said. "There's no bus schedules available on the ferries, and if you're doing that to keep people in cars, that's pretty disgusting."

Hahn denied that this was BC Ferries' intent, although he admitted the company in theory could encourage people to stop driving cars, which would cause BC Ferries to lose driver revenue.

On scheduling, he said the ferries could not afford to wait for late busses, for doing so would create havoc with their own routes. "It would be better if transit matched our schedules, not we match theirs."

He noted that bus schedules are widely available elsewhere, including online, and "there's some personal responsibility for people to manage their own travel."

What's a fair fare?

Another citizen complained of differential fares amongst various ferry routes, and he proposed that BC Ferries adjusted the fares to closely match the travel distances.

"There have been debates over many years over what is called 'fare equity,'" replied BC Ferries finance vice-president Rob Clarke. "The genesis of some of those fares is well steeped in political tradition. But we're not in the political business. And distance does not always match cost of providing service, and it should not be the only factor."

Clarke concluded that a financial concession granted to one community must be subtracted from another to compensate for it, and there would be little agreement amongst them on who is more deserving.

The chair of the Southern Gulf Islands advisory group reported that people living on islands on the "minor" routes, on very low incomes, are in much distress, for they are very tourist dependent and traffic has fallen.

Measuring the past year's performance

Highlights from the fiscal year of 2008/09, as presented by BC Ferries' executives, include:

Facts passed over at AGM

A few recent news items regarding BC Ferries, not raised at the meeting, include:

Related Tyee stories:  [Tyee]

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