11/19/2013 09:07 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

End free rides for BC Ferries employees, critics argue

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is calling for an end to free ferry rides for BC Ferries employees and their family members after recent announcements of financial stress, service cuts, and a reduction in seniors' discounts from the corporation.

For more than 20 years, any employee that works for the ferry service or those who retired with 10 years of experience are allowed unlimited ferry use. Their families get 24 free trips a year, as well, but it's a taxable benefit.

Additionally, anyone who happens to be born on a BC Ferries vessel is given a pass that lets them ride free for a lifetime.

Although BC Ferries will not say exactly how many free passes are currently in circulation, an internal document from 2010 shows that at least 4,200 employees, 3,200 of their family members and 13 contractors had passes.

BC Ferries told CBC News they are currently trying to update an antiquated computer system, and that they will provide current numbers when possible.

Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says that amidst growing financial concerns for the future of BC Ferries and recent cuts in services and seniors discounts, employee passes for free rides should be scrapped too.

"These free passes should go by the wayside as well. If there is no reason why everyone else should be paying while BC Ferries executives and employees past and present still get the benefit," Bateman says.

BC Ferries president Michael Corrigan says, however, that the employee discounts and free rides don't cost the public anything, and there is no reason to get rid of them at this time.

"The employee pass is something that gives people a great deal of pride. From a company standpoint, there is no cost to give employees because we are at 50% occupancy," Corrigan told CBC News.

A recent study from Washington State estimates that staff passes result in about $770,000 in losses annually in that state's ferry system, and they have fewer employees than BC Ferries. And unlike in Washington, BC Ferries staff ride free ahead of paying customers, even on days when lines are long or vessels are full.

"It's ludicrous to claim that it's not costing taxpayers any money to put people on a boat. That's just silly — obviously there is a cost," says Bateman.

"This is classic BC Ferries gravy boat where the staff get their benefits and the rest of us end up paying for it."

The B.C. Ministry of Transportation says it's up to BC Ferries to cut or reduce the free rides, and the union representing more than 4,000 ferry workers says there is nothing in their collective agreement to prevent BC Ferries from making the changes.