Ferry fare hike outrages community

by Jacqueline Massey

(The Bowen Island Undercurrent, November 21sth 1997, p1: with permission)

The people of Bowen Island are very, very angry.

News of ferry tariff increases announced by the provincial government last week has left a bitter taste in the mouths of BC Ferry Corporation's customers.

The announcement came without warning. Catching the ferry home from Horseshoe Bay last Friday afternoon, travellers were told that the cost of ten driver and vehicle tickets had just gone up. It would cost $30 more than it had that morning.

To some the increase meant that Bowen is no longer an affordable place to live.

"That's it, we are outta here," one woman said grimly when she heard the news. "Our budget was already strained. This puts us over the top," said the mother of two young children who asked not to be named.

For others and especially those who have worked diligently alongside BC Ferries as part of the public consultation process, the announcement caused tempers to soar.

"It's pretty shocking," said Louise McIntosh, the former chair of Bowen's Advisory Transportation Committee. "We thought we'd be looking at a nominal increase, maybe something around three to six percent."

Instead Bowen commuters and travellers to and from Snug Cove were hit with ticket increases ranging from 14 to 30 percent. McIntosh resigned in protest upon hearing of the sudden announcement.

The new fares, which were announced by Deputy Premier Dan Miller, minister responsible for ferries, saw single ticket purchases for adults go up by $1 to $5.50 and by $2 for vehicles to $16. During the peak season, a vehicle will cost $18.25 and a passenger $5.75.

The percentage of the discount on commuter tickets dropped from 30 percent to 9 percent.

The announcement couldn't have had worse timing. Ferry users have been struggling with daily overloads since the Queen of Capilano has been pulled for a refit. Students relying on ferry transportation have been missing the first class of the day, and commuters have been stranded with the Bowen Queen running hours behind schedule.

Meanwhile, Deborah Dike of BC Ferries in Horseshoe Bay has confirmed that the Queen of Capilano is being used this weekend to tour delegates attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference being held in Vancouver.

The fact that the Corporation did not bother informaing the community of this intended use of the ferry is another example of their insensitivity to the people they are supposed to serve, say many of the company's critics.

Previously, a public consultation process spearheaded by BC Ferries and said to be of the highest priority had given many the hope that the crown corporation formed in 1977 would become more responsive to its customers needs. Over the past two years, communities and individuals were invited to participate in planning and strategy. They would be recognized as partners in the process, dealing with the tough financial realities of the ferry system, f9ormulating reasonable and appropriate policies concerning fares, service and other issues.

Those involved believed that recommendations regarding the most efficient ways to meet the Corporation's five-year goal -- to have costs equal revenue on the mostly money-losing non-commercial routes -- were being taken into consideration. For many, that belief evaporated Friday.

"There was a process that was unfolding, under the government's guidance," said McIntosh. "Taxpayers have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to facilitate this whole process. And it's all for nought; purely wasted money," she said.

Local stakeholder Luz Budzinski, who contemplated resigning, says he too is deeply disappointed. He firmly believed proposals passed at last month's cost allocation meeting attended by stakeholders and Glen Brown, vice-president of finance of BC Ferries, would receive due consideration from the Board of BC Ferries and the government's finance department.

But the government's announcement was "a far cry" from what was proposed, he says.

Pat McGuire, another resident who has spent two and a half years going to stakeholder meetings and offering input says she initially felt really positive about the process.

"We thought they were finally starting to listen to the little guys."

At first, she said, they did listen. A number of recommendations that came from island residents and groups made financial sense to the Corporation and were adopted.

But now, says McGuire who also sits on the Bowen Island Transportation Association, she feels "really let down."

It is speculated that the company was so strapped for cash that it simply dived into the purses of its customers.

BC Ferries reported its worst showing ever last year, reporting a loss of $76.5 million in the 1996-97 financial year ending March 31.

According to Deputy-Premier Miller, the government is taking steps to "improve BC Ferries financial performance" with the new fare structure.

Miller also spoke of a provision of "annual financial support" for the ferry service. Although he isn't saying how much the provincial government might be willing to hand over to the financially ailing Corporation, he does say that the government recognizes that the ferry service is an essential part of BC's transportation system and that it cannot be totally self-supporting.

This promise to continue subsidies differs slightly from the message that the Corporation had been sending over the past few years. It had been warning that considerable reductions to traditional subsidies were to be expected.

Miller called the increases "modest" and designed to "recover a larger portion of the operating costs facing the Corporation and to increase the level of cost recovery on smaller routes ..."

But there are many who seriously doubt this will be the result.

"The increases do not bear any logical response to costs" says Adam Holbrook, acting chair of the ATC. He points out that because the increases are disproportionate on commuter tickets as opposed to individual costs the effect will discourage the use of public transit.

"The fares are a deterrent and counter-productive."

Worst hit will be those with lower income who depend on discounted ticket books, says Holbrook.

Bowen's MLA, Ted Nebbeling of the BC Liberal Party says the decision reflects an attitude of "arrogance of the government" that has "over-ruled common sense."

He has fired off letter to the minister condemning the increases and demanding that they be rolled back. He says the Corporation should look into other ways of reducing costs besides fares. They should also take a close look why their financial situation is so bleak and reconsider projects like the fast-speed catamaran ferries.

Local elected representatives have also urged citizens to speak out against the increases. "Write, phone, scream holler," suggests Richard Littlemore, GVRD director.

A copy of a complaint form available from BC Ferries is being distributed locally. The form states that the president "personally reviews" all comments and concerns. Those concerned by the increases and other issues such as service and safety are encouraged to express theiur opinions. The forms will be collected by the elected representatives of the Islands Trust and delivered to Tom Ward, president and CEO of BC Ferries.

Ward will be at a gathering of the Islands Trust in Victoria in early December. Local resident Tracy Chambers will be there to meet him along with 26 other representatives.

"We've been getting a really clear message from our constituents," she said about the fare increases. "We plan to deliver that message loudly."

The need to be heard and listened to has never been felt more keenly on Bowen. A public protest later today at Horseshoe Bay has been organized and there is expected to be a strong turnout.

"The government has to be made to understand that this is not just a serious issue, it's fundamental to the people," says Littlemore.

"If they are suffering the misunderstanding that we are drawn here because we are back-to-nature types like living a luxurious life, they should be set straight."

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