B.C. transportation minister changes course on ferry cuts

Move marks a 24-hour about-face by B.C.'s government from supporting to sinking a proposal from BC Ferries

VICTORIA – In just 24 hours, British Columbia’s government went from supporting to sinking a proposal from BC Ferries to stop rising fares by cutting routes and closing terminals in Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay.

The about-face had the head of BC Ferries warning on Wednesday that the government has taken away one of the company’s primary means of controlling costs and major fare hikes could result.

“To be perfectly clear, with government not wanting to consider the major route strategy, I mean that represents 80 per cent of our costs,” said BC Ferries president and chief executive office Mike Corrigan. “Without being able to look and explore the major routes, we’re looking at having difficulty now keeping fares at inflationary increases. That’s going to be basically impossible now.”

BC Ferries looked at the idea of dropping routes and closing terminals to save costs in a Sept. 30 efficiency and performance report presented to ferry commissioner Gordon Macatee. The commissioner regulates fares and service levels and acts independently of the provincial government and B.C. Ferries Inc.

The report said BC Ferries will have to spend $1.1 billion over the next 15 years to replace six major vessels and upgrade the Horseshoe Bay terminal at a cost of $200 million.

The report, which examined issues up to 2020 and beyond, stated: “These options may include such strategies as, consolidating the two mid-Island routes, consolidating two mid-Island terminals, leveraging a passenger-only service or shift route 2 service from Horseshoe Bay to Tsawwassen.”

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said on Tuesday that he would consider proposals in the report, but on Wednesday said he was lobbied intensely by his caucus colleagues and determined the status quo was the preferred option.

“Over the last 24 hours, I’ve had very good conversations with my Island colleagues,” said Stone, who is in Regina for Western partnership meetings. “They made some very strong and eloquent arguments.”

He said Island Liberal MLAs, Michelle Stilwell and Don McRae, convinced him closing terminals and cancelling the major Nanaimo route to the Mainland does not make economic or social sense.

“The B.C. government has no interest in cancelling or seeing the cancellation of the Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay run,” said Stone. “That’s an iconic run in B.C. There’s no appetite whatsoever within the B.C. government to see BC Ferries cancel that run.”

He said there are currently no government plans to close the Nanaimo ferry terminals at Duke Point or Departure Bay.

“The B.C. government has determined that is not an initiative we would like to pursue at this time,” Stone said.

Stone also rejected calls for BC Ferries to consider a passenger-only service from Nanaimo to the Lower Mainland.

Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan said he was flooded with calls and emails from residents concerned about the potential terminal closures and service reductions.

He said people reacted as if the report’s suggestions were final rather than proposals for consideration.

“When they say this is just a tentative report don’t be concerned about it, it’s just a plan, it’s a wish list,” Ruttan said. “Well, that’s fine and dandy, but we’ve got a lot of anxious people who are concerned. I’ve had all kinds of emails and phone calls, particularly the elderly saying I need that service.”

BC Ferries is undergoing an efficiency plan to cut $54 million in costs in an effort to keep fare increases in check.

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