‘Capped’ BC Ferries fare hikes still causing consternation in Comox Valley

Hornby Boat Rentals owner Steve Tovell has been in business 16 years.

Hornby Boat Rentals owner Steve Tovell has been in business 16 years.

It had been turning a profit until 2009 when he said things “started to dive,” adding last summer provided a “taste of what’s to come.”

This week tipped the iceberg a little further when the BC Ferry Commission — the independent regulator of BC Ferries — released details about price cap decisions that allow fare hikes of about four per cent for each of the next three years.

“The days of my business and my seasons are numbered,” said Tovell, who works as a carpenter in the off-season. He feels the ferry system has been mismanaged since it went out of government’s hands into an at-arm’s-length quasi-private status.

“Ever since the Ferries took over it’s a steady decline, and I’m almost at the tipping point,” Tovell said. “We’re still paying for those fast cat ferries, and then they’re selling these used ferries off to Mexico.

“The government needs to take it over again, get rid of the dead weight and restructure it. It’s going to kill the West Coast.

“We’re the most expensive route here on Hornby and we make the most money of all the small routes,” Tovell added. “The working class is being squeezed off these small communities. They don’t want us here for some reason.

“I guess we don’t contribute enough to the tax base. That’s the feeling over here, that we don’t matter.”

The Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs are concerned that fare hikes are double the inflation rate.

“Fares will continue to grow much faster than people’s incomes unless government faces the causes of the affordability crisis,” said Tony Law of the Hornby-Denman FAC.

According to the FACCs, a January commission study found ferry fares were at the tipping point of affordability, causing hardship in coastal communities. It also noted fuel surcharges will change with future fuel prices.

The FACCs said the commission calculates fare increases based on numbers from BC Ferries and government. Key numbers come from government’s response to the commission affordability report:

• $33 million in new government contribution to BC Ferries in the next three years;

• $74 million in cuts in the next three years: $30 million in service cuts, $15 million in new BC Ferries efficiencies (including cancelling runs), and $29 million remaining of previously agreed-upon efficiencies of $9.8 million per year.

The new money aims to help BC Ferries maintain a strong bond rating and reduce upward pressure on fares. Without it, fare hikes would have been a few percentage points higher.

The effect of cuts on future fares and traffic is harder to assess, the FACC said. The group is concerned that service cuts — unless done carefully and with ideas from communities — could aggravate the downward spiral in traffic and upward spiral in fares.

“Both spirals are the kiss of death to dozens of coastal communities,” said Brian Hollingshead of the Southern Gulf Islands FAC. “More than anything, we need a public policy approach that aims to sustain our communities, stem the damage from high fares and grow our potential.”

The FACCs suggest the heart of such policy is sound public infrastructure, which requires government to bear a greater share of escalating costs that are causing escalating fares. Along with fuel prices, it notes revenue shortfalls from falling traffic, and the need to replace old ships and docks.

The commission ruling allowing fare increases is at www.bcferrycommission.com/reports-press/whats-new/final-price-cap-decision-released.

reporter@comoxvalleyrecord.com

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