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

Just Posted

Hannes Grosse, left, and Iris Steigemann, right, as they prepared for their 'Moments of Silence' exhibit. The father-daughter duo are showing at The Old School House Arts Centre in Qualicum Beach until June 26. (Submitted photo)
Cortes Island artists exhibit at Qualicum Beach’s TOSH in first father-daughter show

Both artists will be present at shows on Friday, June 25 and Saturday, June 26

The Lighthouse Country Marine Rescue Society will get more funding from the Regional District of Nanaimo. (Submitted Photo)
More PQB communities to fund Lighthouse Country Marine Rescue Society

RDN to introduce amendment to service bylaw contribution

A slide on best practices when reporting a suspected impaired driver that was presented to Parksville city council on June 7 by Margarita Bernard, a volunteer with MADD. The organization’s Report Impaired Drivers campaign involves the installation of informative signs within the City of Parksville. (Mandy Moraes photo)
MADD brings campaign to report impaired drivers to Parksville

Aim is to raise awareness that 911 should be called

Pam Bottomley (executive director), right and Sandy Hurley (president) of the Parksville Downtown Business Association visit the PQB News/VI Free Daily studio. (Peter McCully photo)
PQBeat: Downtown Parksville gears up for post-pandemic bounce back

Podcast: Hurley, Bottomley chat about what’s ahead for the PDBA

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

Two ambulances and a medevac helicopter are on scene at Taylor River Flats rest area on Highway 4 due to a serious motor vehicle incident. (PHOTO COURTESY MAGGIE BROWN)
Highway 4 reopens between Port Alberni and Tofino

Multi-vehicle accident temporarily closed highway in both directions

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stands outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after speaking to reporters, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Kamloops chief says more unmarked graves will be found across Canada

Chief Rosanne Casimir told a virtual news conference the nation expects to release a report at the end of June

A woman wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. ranks among highest in world in COVID-19 first-dose shots: health officials

More than 76% of eligible people have received their 1st shot

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller

Canadian Armed Forces experts are on their way to North Vancouver after a local homeowner expressed worry about a military artifact he recently purchased. (Twitter DNV Fire and Rescue)
Military called in to deal with antique ‘shell’ at North Vancouver home

‘The person somehow purchased a bombshell innocently believing it was an out-of-commission military artifact’

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz have set their wedding date for February, hoping that more COVID-19 restrictions will have lifted. (The Macleans)
B.C. couples ‘gambling’ on whether COVID rules will let them dance at their wedding

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz pushed back their wedding in hopes of being able to celebrate it without the constraints of COVID-19

Most Read