ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - British Columbia's Opposition New Democrats promised Wednesday to freeze ferry rates for two years while conducting an audit of BC Ferries' operations, targeting a service that coastal residents have made a sport of griping about in the face of increasing fares and reductions in service.
The NDP released its plan for BC Ferries on the second day of the campaign for the May 14 election, including it among a list of platform promises that also pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for skills training programs and post-secondary education grants.
The Liberals immediately attacked the announcements, saying the NDP had already committed to spending $1 billion, which the governing party said was far more than the province can afford.
If elected, an NDP government would launch an audit to determine how BC Ferries can save money or shift resources to keep fares low and ensure the service is meeting the needs of coastal communities, said party Leader Adrian Dix.
During the audit, the NDP would spend $40 million over two years to prevent any rate increases until at least March 31, 2015.
"We shouldn't forget the essential role BC Ferries plays in communities," Dix said at a campaign stop in Abbotsford, southeast of Vancouver.
"It is an economic linchpin in many communities. For many people, it's completely essential not just to their weekly lives, but to their daily lives."
BC Ferries is a former Crown corporation that was partly privatized by the Liberals in 2003 under then-premier Gordon Campbell.
While the province no longer directly controls the ferry service, the government is BC Ferries' only shareholder and has significant influence over its operations and fares.
The province negotiates a contract with BC Ferries to determine the required level of service, as well as the amount of public funding the corporation will receive. The Ferry Commission, an independent body in charge of overseeing that contract, then sets fares largely based on the difference between BC Ferries' operating costs and its government funding.
It's not unprecedented for the provincial government to step in with extra cash to dictate fares.
In late 2008, with an election just months away, the Liberal government announced $20 million to fund a temporary, two-month reduction in fares by 33 per cent over the winter holiday season.
Last year, after the ferry commission recommended a rate increase of 8.23 per cent, the government announced $80 million over several years to bring those increases down to about four per cent.
The NDP's rate freeze would be in addition to that $80 million, the party said.
On Wednesday, Liberal Premier Christy Clark said the NDP's rate freeze was simply too expensive.
"I think there are two things we can do to BC Ferries: we can hold off with no plan for 20 months and raise taxes so that we can fund it, that's the NDP plan," said Clark.
"My plan is to pay down BC Ferries debt. That is the most urgent thing we need to do."
The Liberal party platform, released earlier in the week, includes a plan to pay off BC Ferries' $1 billion debt, but not urgently. The Liberals would use its so-called prosperity fund, which would be supported by expected liquefied natural gas revenues, but the fund isn't expected to be up and running until 2017.
The NDP would also put off planned service reductions, currently scheduled to take effect next year.
BC Ferries had until June 30 of this year to find $26 million in savings through route reductions, but the province and the ferry corporation recently reached a deal putting those cuts off until March 2014. Those cuts will also be part of the NDP audit, the party said.
Fares last increased on April 1, by an average of 4.1 per cent. Fares vary on each route, but on the major runs between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island it cost $15.50 for each passenger over 12 and $51.25 for a vehicle up to 20 feet in length.
The province's ferry commissioner, Gord Macatee, said there's nothing unusual about a government using funding to influence rates.
"The government already provides a very significant level of support to the ferry service, so adding $20 million is not changing anything about the process — this is how the system works," Macatee said in an interview Wednesday.
Still, Macatee said a more significant concern is whether the province has a long-term vision for the ferry service, especially with the looming costs of replacing aging ferries, currently estimated at about $2.5 billion.
"In another 40 years, are we going to want a fleet of car-moving ferries on the routes they're presently on providing the same service they're presently providing, or maybe there could be a different vision," said Macatee, who stressed he wasn't recommended a particular vision.
BC Ferries declined to wade into the election debate over fares.
Aside from the NDP's plan to freeze ferry rates, Dix also sold his proposed funding for skills training programs and education grants as the best way to stimulate job growth in the province.
He said the most recent Statistics Canada employment numbers for March indicate B.C. has lost almost 35,000 private-sector jobs since Premier Christy Clark introduced her jobs plan in September 2011.
The NDP's platform calls for a $250-million student-grant program, which would be funded by a bank tax.
The size of the grants would be calculated based on each student's need, to a maximum of $1,500 a year. The party estimated the fund would cost $50 million in the 2013-2014 fiscal year and $100 million annually for two years following, until 2015-2016.
The student grant program, which aims to increase the numbers of skilled workers, did not come with job creation targets.
"This is not, I would concede, the most exciting thing to announce," said Dix.
"It's not a movie pageant on the eve of an election," he added, jabbing at the Liberal government's recent decision to spend $11 million to host the Times of India Film Awards in Vancouver.
In addition, the NDP would spend $80 million over three years to improve B.C.'s skills training and apprenticeship system for students and employers, and would also create a one-time $20 million scholarship fund for post-secondary and skills training students.
Dix said the skills and apprenticeship system would invest in modern training equipment and bring labour interests back to the apprenticeship programs. He said the Liberals dropped unions from apprenticeship boards early in their mandate.
The NDP leader visited the University of the Fraser Valley on Wednesday, where he talked to food services and automobile mechanic students.
— With files from James Keller
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