BC Ferries mulling local service options

by Jacqueline Massey

(The Bowen Island Undercurrent, November 7 1997, p1: with permission)

What will ferry service to Bowen be like in five years?

There's been a high degree of speculation going on about this, especially since the BC Ferry Corporation announced its short term plan to take action to ensure direct revenues of individual routes cover direct costs. Currently, only six of 26 routes province-wide have achieved this goal.

BC Ferries reported a net loss of $76.5 million for the year ended March 31,1997. The non-commercial runs,including Bowen, rang in a $45 million operating shortfall. Route 8, the Queen of Capilano's run between Horseshoe Bay and Snug Cove, reported a short fall of under $2 million.

The board has given management five years to attain its short-term fiscal goal. Either increase revenues (through higher traffic or higher fares), or reduce costs, or do both, it has been told.

What does this mean to ferry traffic crossing Howe Sound?

The short answer is that fares will most likely rise. However, according to Glen Brown, vice president, finance and corporate services at BC Ferries' head office, raising tariffs is only one solution.

"Our real objective is to involve our customers in the process of trying to decide whether trhe best opportunity or the best way of recovering these losses is via tariff or via cost reductions."

Placing a priority on involving ferry customers and other "stakeholders, "the Corporation has been seeking imput from those whose lives are daily affected by ferry travel. "We can look at statistics."says Brown,"but our view is that we have to get out among the people who are actually using the service or to whom the service is really important and ask for their imput to these questions."

Last month, Brown met for two days with stakeholders and representatives from non-commercial routes including Bowen. The costallocation committee attempted to find ways to curn operational losses.

Initially, says Brown, annual costs were forecast and tariff increases were based on how much revenue would be needed to break even over five years.

In the case of Route 8, that equalled a six per cent year increase.

An alternative method of calculating costs was suggested based on separating passenger and vehicle costs and comparing them with the average passenger vehicle revenue. Tariff increases would then be calculated on the resulting figures.

A third proposal was to add together the average cost per mile in non-commercial routes and the commercial routes and determine the unit cost of a per-person passenger mile.

"Because the utilization of capital is fairly high on the major routes ... the average cost per passenger and average cost per vehicle is low, or not as high as it is on other routes. So, when you mix the two averages it gives you an average that is lower,"explains Brown.

Brown agreed to take forward this recommendation to the board for consideration, however he expressed some discomfort with the plan due to the fact that there was nobody at the meeting representing any of the commercial routes. "It's one thing to say I'm going to increase your fares to pay for someone else, but you really should have the people there when you are saying that,"he maintained.

The major commercial routes include those from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay and Nanaimo and from Horseshoe bay to Nanaimo and Langdale.

The argument that the provincial government should recognise ferry routes as a highway equivalance was supported by many at the meeting. Marine highways provide an essential means of transportation just as highways do and therefore merit subsidies, it was asserted.

Brown doesn't foresee that arguement persuading the government."We are competing with hospitals and schools for capital and subsidies. So I guess the choice the government has to make is for social services."

In an era of governemnt cutbacks in spending, maintaining ferry services is just not a top priority right now. "I can only say that the past has shown that the government has reduced the sunsidies in this area."

Brown will present all the recommendations of the cost allocation committee to the finace committee of the board of BC Ferries. The board will then make a decision and a recommendation to government. Eventually tariffs will be established by an order in council.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to know exactly when that might be. And nobody can tell for sure what the cabinet will do.

"This process is sometimes short, sometimes longer,"says Brown. He expects that by spring a new tariff schedule will be announced.

This is particularly worrisome to many Islanders. Residents have been hit with a number of fare increases over the past few years. In 1990, a book of 10 car and drive tickets cost $85.50. By 1994, it had risen to $107.70. Today ten discounted tickets to and from the island cost $122.70

Brown emphasized that BC Ferries is "not just interested in tariffs."

"A major part of the solution has got to involve service. That's where the biggest costs are.

The local Advisory Transportation Committeee has been quick to offer BC Ferries ways and means to reach their five year plan. The committee, which is appointed by Island Trustees and the local GVRD director and chaired by Louise McIntosh, has been active in discussions on the proposed tariff changes for Route 8.

In a recent memo to Glen Brown, the committee offered ten recommnendations. Advice included:ensure vessel deploment matches service needs:pursue appropriate ministries for the recovery of costs due to school-related, medical and senior's travel;explore revenue-generating initiatives such as advertising on vessels and corporate sponsorships;identify the cost fleet-wide to transport a passenger one mile/kilometre rate;consider giving federal contract subsidies to communities with limited facilities/infrastructure; charge overtime due to delays to the routes responsible;tailor commuter ticket discounts to high voume runs;and charge foot passengers a lower percentage increase to encourage use of public transit.

These recommnedations will be seriously considered, says Brown."Where we can make changes quickly we will"

As requested by the BC Ferries planning department, the Advisory Transportation Committee has also drawn up a short list of scenarios for providing the best service to Bowen. At their September board meeting, the committee discussed options including enlarging the Queen of Capilano through double-ramping, and running a shared, supplementary ferrry to complement existing service.

Another option that seems to be gaining in favor from both BC Ferries management and locals is to deploy a Century Class ferry for Route 8. Faster and more fuel efficient, these vessles asre designed for shorter, high volume routes with a capacity for 100 vehecles and 600 passengers.

A final option would be to run both the Mayne Queen and Bowen Queen with one based at Horseshoe Bay.

The committee expressed no preference for any of the options and urged that the base of existing service be taken into consideration. The planning department at BC Ferries will report back with figures projecting the dollar fare of each option.

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