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Ferry runs could be cut, but not on small routes

BC Ferries is planning to cut up to 400 sailings in order to deal with a $35-million deficit forecast for this year.

The main cuts proposed are extra Friday and Sunday sailings on major routes during the off-season, the corporation's CEO David Hahn announced Wednesday. No cuts are planned for smaller routes such as those to the Gulf Islands.

Hahn said passenger trips have dropped to a 20-year low and vehicle traffic has dropped to an 11-year low. He blames the drop on rising fuel costs, a slow economy and a strong Canadian dollar that's keeping away tourists.

Others, however, blame the drop on escalating ferry rates. In the past 20 years fares on major routes for a car and driver have increased from $29 to $75. Shorter routes have experienced even bigger increases.

"To be honest I'm not surprised to see them getting into this situation," said Tony Law, who represents Hornby-Denman on the Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs. "We've always said that fares have a big influence on traffic. We predicted that traffic would go down, and BC Ferries was still optimistic it would go up...I think the decline is due more to fare increases than BC Ferries has been willing to give credit to."

The FACC has been puzzled by certain capital expenditures such as cosmetic improvements to vessels that Law feels are not necessary.

"It goes back to our questions about the whole structure is that as we see it, the ferry system should be run as part of the provincial transportation system, and not at this degree of arms length from the province," Law said, noting an impending review of the legislation and the Coastal Ferry Act model by the BC Ferries Commission.

"He (commissioner Gordon Macatee) seems determined to take a look at it from the ferry users point of view. It's very timely, I think, that he's doing this review at a time when it seems there are significant challenges with BC Ferries."

Comox Valley Regional District chair Edwin Grieve and chairs from nine other coastal regional districts met recently with Macatee to discuss options for improvements to coastal ferry service. The group has also met with Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom to discuss fare increases. Grieve could not be reached for comment.

The cuts to sailing still require government approval.

B.C. Ferries expects to announce details of new service reductions on Sept. 19.

Layoffs are planned to reduce the pool of on-call workers used to crew extra sailings. The corporation plans to minimize the impact by way of  a hiring freeze and by promoting early retirement plans.

BC Ferries provides about 10,000 sailing a year. Its annual budget is about $770 million dollars, including a $27 million annual subsidy from the federal and provincial governments.

reporter@comoxvalleyrecord.com

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