11/16/2012 03:10 EST | Updated 01/16/2013 05:12 EST

Ferry Cuts, Rate Hikes Worry Salt Spring Islanders


Several dozen B.C., residents filed into hotel ballroom on Salt Spring Island Thursday to voice their concerns about future fare hikes and service cuts to ferry service to the island.

Three ferry routes currently serve Salt Spring Island, where approximately 10,000 people live year-round.

BC Ferries said that, on average, the sailings to the island run at less than half-capacity, and run an annual shortfall of $20 million — a shortfall it wants to eliminate.

One of the ways BC Ferries is looking to continue saving money is through service reductions. Another way would be to increase fares.

Residents react

Shelley Nitikman, a resident of Salt Spring, said that many year-round residents already feel financially squeezed by ever-increasing fares.

"The toll keeps going up, up and up, and eventually you can't use it," she said.

Local Ferry Advisory Committee Chair Harold Swierenga said that a more fundamental debate needs to be settled before questions on fares and service levels can be addressed.

For him, and for many islanders, much of the debate at the open house centered around the issue of whether BC Ferries is a company that should be concerned with its bottom line — or if the ferry service is an extension of the highway system.

"People are pretty adamant that they see the ferries as an essential service, not just another public utility," he said.

Salt Spring resident Mitch Scragg is one of many who sees the service as essential.

"You owe it to us people that are using this ferry service to keep it going, and I don't see raising the prices as the answer," he said.

"Maybe they do have to look at knocking back some of the ferry times. Maybe some of them just aren't carrying people and maybe that's something they have to look at, but they still have to give us our service."

Consultations underway

Thursday's open house was just one of a series of public open houses the Coastal Ferries Review is holding this fall as part of a process to eliminate an annual shortfall of tens of millions of dollars.

In a report published in January, B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee said declining ridership, financial losses, and the need for huge upgrades of ships and terminals are all straining the sustainability of the provincial ferry corporation.

In August, BC Ferries announced that it would cut 98 fall and winter sailings on the Duke Point-Tsawwassen route and the Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route and the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route.

BC Ferries originally sought to cut 400 sailings, and also said it was in talks with the provincial government about possible changes on its minor routes, including the Southern and Northern Gulf islands.

Before more cuts were made, the independent B.C. Ferry Commissioner said the BC Ferries Corporation and the government must consult the public about the future of the service.

BC Ferries lost more than $16 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2012, and the B.C. government has said there will be cuts coming next year, after the provincial election.