Special Report on B.C. Ferries – Part 3: A lifeline to the mainland

B.C. Ferries impacts everything from food prices to tourism for Vancouver Islanders

Passengers enjoy the view on board the B.C. Ferries vessel Spirit of British Columbia during a sailing from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen.

Passengers enjoy the view on board the B.C. Ferries vessel Spirit of British Columbia during a sailing from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen.

Part 3

For more than a year, Jessica Carr spent her Saturday afternoons weaving through Vancouver traffic to make the 7 p.m. ferry at Tsawwassen.

Her work schedule meant public transit wasn’t an option, unless she wanted to show up at midnight to meet her Victoria-based boyfriend on the other side.

“Every weekend, back and forth,” she recalled of the seven-hour round trip.

Although walk-on fares on the major B.C. Ferries routes aren’t outrageous – passengers currently pay $15.10 on the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen run – Carr noticed the impact of the bi-weekly travel on her monthly budget.

“The ferry cost alone is $30 round trip, never mind the parking you have to pay, which is $20 or $30 each weekend,” she said. Paying to take her vehicle over wasn’t even a consideration, she added.

Since moving to Victoria last March, Carr estimates she’s saving at least $120 a month. “My weekends are no longer dictated by the ferry schedule, just looming in the back of my mind,” she said.

As Capital Region residents know all too well, the cost of ferries has an inevitable impact on everything from the cost of goods to incoming tourism dollars.

With fares set to increase an average of 12 per cent over the next three years, even B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee has admitted ferry users have reached a “tipping point” of affordability.

The province, which binds B.C. Ferries to a minimum service level on each route, is in the early stages of consultation with coastal communities, trying to figure out how to cut $30 million in costs from its roughly 185,000 annual sailings on both the major and minor routes.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak said $9 million in cuts have already been identified, beginning with 98 sailings on low-ridership departures between Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen and Duke Point-Tsawwassen.

It’s those changes that people like Trevor Sawkins will be watching closely.

As CEO of Cold Star Freight Systems, Sawkins oversees the movement of more than 23,000 kilograms of frozen and fresh food each day. His trucks make 50 round trips between the Mainland and Vancouver Island each week.

“There really is only a three- or four-day supply (of fresh food) on Vancouver Island at any given time,” he said.

While rising fares and reduced sailings aren’t likely to affect Cold Star’s bottom line, the increased costs are passed on to customers, meaning products that originate off-Island end up costing more, Sawkins said.

“If the cost of food is going up, it may change what is being eaten, as well.”

The advantage for local producers, he said, is that they gain a competitive price advantage on the Island. “The downside is they can’t expand their food industry beyond the Island.”

The B.C. Trucking Association had its biggest beef with B.C. Ferries ironed out when the ferry commissioner set predictable price caps on rising fares earlier this year.

“Often, (fares) are the largest part of our cost structure. So, if they’re giving us a fair bit of time to react, that’s definitely helpful for the trucking business. Before that, it was on a yearly basis with very limited notice,” said Sawkins, a trucking association board member.

•    •    •

B.C. Ferries fares aren’t excessive when compared to other ferry systems that travel similar distances, Macatee noted in his review of the Coastal Ferry Act.

But he admits direct comparisons are made difficult by a lack of available data from other private companies.

“I know people are feeling the pain of higher fares, but when you dive a little bit further into the issue, our fares aren’t outrageous by world standards,” he said.

Even with the planned fare increases, B.C. residents pay less for ferry travel than residents in Ireland, Massachusetts and New Brunswick, according to the review, published in January.

Only Norway’s government-controlled ferry system is cited as having substantially cheaper fares when priced on distance travelled.

The Norwegian government covers 50 per cent of operating costs for its ferries, while the B.C. government contributed enough to cover roughly 38 per cent of B.C. Ferries’ operating budget last year.

But Macatee warns it isn’t operational costs pushing fares higher, it’s the looming $2.5 billion required to replace 11 vessels in the next 10 to 12 years.

“The ships are wearing out. We either replace them, or they’ll be taken out of service by federal regulators,” he said.

•    •    •

Carr hopes the upcoming changes to B.C. Ferries include better deals for regular commuters between the Island and Lower Mainland.

“It’s ridiculous they don’t have a frequent traveller pass so that you can get a discount (on major routes),” she said.

Minor route residents have access to Experience Cards, which allow for 30-to-40-per-cent savings on fares using a prepaid card.

With ridership declining and fares continuing to rise, something has to happen. A new long-term vision is needed. And right now, what that might look like is anyone’s guess.

To add your voice to the public consultation, visit coastalferriesengagement.ca.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

Past stories in series:

Part 2: Gulf Islanders pay a price

Part 1: A Sea of Change

Intro: B.C. Ferries charts a new course

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The school board is endorsing a national coalition for healthy food in schools. Screenshot, Comox Valley Schools
Comox Valley school board backs national healthy food initiative

Coalition for Healthy School Food wants federal government to invest in food program

Comox Valley RCMP have responded to an increased amount of calls last year within the Town of Comox. File photo
Policing calls for traffic, domestic assault increasing within Town of Comox: RCMP

There were 2,806 calls for service within the town in 2020

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

Cumberland is hoping for its lab at the Cumberland Health Centre to re-open. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Cumberland hopeful for lab re-opening

“People in Cumberland are getting a little bit left behind with the loss of that lab.”

Ramona Johnson at the I-Hos Gallery. Photo by Ali Roddam/Black Press
Community rallying to support I-Hos Gallery manager

Ramona Johnson has recently been diagnosed with cancer for the second time

Jay Valeri and Lyndsey Bell own Bigfoot Donuts in downtown Courtenay. File photo
Courtenay donut shop wins Small Business BC Award

Bigfoot Donuts has won the Premier’s People’s Choice category of the Small… Continue reading

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The following is a list of restaurants offering take-out and patio dining. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE
List of Comox Valley restaurants offering take-out, patio dining options

Restaurants in the Comox Valley continue to adapt to government-imposed restrictions in… Continue reading

A worker rides a bike at a B.C. Hydro substation in Vancouver, on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
BC Hydro report raises safety concerns as pandemic prompts jump in yard work

Incidents involving weekend tree trimmers, gardeners and landscapers have risen 30% since the pandemic hit

Jay Valeri and Lyndsey Bell own Bigfoot Donuts in downtown Courtenay. File photo
Courtenay donut shop wins Small Business BC Award

Bigfoot Donuts has won the Premier’s People’s Choice category of the Small… Continue reading

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
B.C.’s first electric school bus making the rounds in Victoria suburbs

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

Most Read