11/18/2013 02:22 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

BC Ferries Cuts Routes, Considers Slot Machines

VICTORIA - BC Ferries will trim some routes in coastal British Columbia communities, seniors will pay more, and slot machines are being considered for some vessels in an effort to raise revenue for the floundering service.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said Monday that most of the cuts starting next April will affect minor routes in small areas with ridership of less than 20 per cent and those changes are expected to save $14 million.

Cuts of $4.9 million will also be made on major routes, for overall savings of $18.9 million by 2016.

Cancelling free Monday-to-Thursday sailings for seniors will bring in $6 million a year and the popular program will be replaced by a 50-per-cent fare as of April 1, Stone said.

A pilot project involving slot machines on the Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen run could become part of a permanent revenue-generating program as overall ridership falls. The B.C. Lottery Corp. will own the machines and BC Ferries staff will be trained to monitor them.

Stone acknowledged that cutting sailings on minor routes will particularly affect people who rely on the system to get to work.

"There's no question that the changes we're proposing today — whether it's the seniors' discount, whether it's the service reductions — are tough decisions, and these decisions will indeed impact people. But we've heard loud and clear, from people in the coastal communities through the various rounds of consultations that have taken place to this point, that fares cannot continue to escalate as they have. And people want the ferry system to be there."

Fares are scheduled to rise by four per cent next April and 3.9 per cent the following year, Stone said, adding the goal is to get increases to match the rate of inflation.

The government will hold consultations in about two dozen communities until Dec. 20, but the decision on changes has already been made in order to keep the system affordable for years to come, Stone said.

A total of 6,895 round trips will be slashed by the end of 2016, representing about eight per cent of current service.

New Democrat ferries critic Claire Trevena said the government is running BC Ferries like a corporate cruise line with exorbitant pay for executives, insufficient service on all but the busiest routes and a culture that values slot-machine players over families.

She said seniors on fixed incomes will be particularly affected by the changes.

"These cuts follow last week's announcement that rather than scrapping bonuses for BC Ferries executives, the Liberals had signed off on a plan that would allow executives and managers to continue to receive their bonuses as part of their salaries," Trevena said.

Stone said cuts to bonuses for executives would result in up to $1 million in annual savings.

BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan said the latest cuts means there will be some layoffs involving casual and seasonal employees.

"For the employees who work on the routes that are affected by these service-level reductions their hours of work will be reduced," Corrigan said. "All that being said we're going to work with our union and with each of the employees to try to minimize the impact going forward, keeping in mind that over the next five to 10 years over half of our workforce is going to retire. We think we can manage this but there's certainly going to be an impact."

Some of the cuts include the Bowen Island to Horseshoe Bay route, with the year-round elimination of the first two round trips on Saturday and Sunday mornings and the last round trip on Saturday night when traffic levels are low.

Service between Powell River and Texada Island will be significantly reduced, primarily in the evening. Two round trips every day will be eliminated.

Some routes will not see any reductions during peak season, but there will be cuts in the off season.

Conny Nordin, who owns a business on Galiano Island, said BC Ferries is considering combining some sailings between mid-October and mid-May between Friday and Sunday nights.

"I'm not sure what they're contemplating there but I can say that absolutely in the quiet season in any small community everyone knows you depend on your weekends to survive through the winter."

Norbin, who is president of the local chamber of commerce and sits on the BC Ferries advisory committee for the Gulf Islands, said the southern Gulf Islands are not included in the community consultations, although that doesn't matter if decisions about upcoming changes have already been made.

Service cuts are expected to save fuel and labour costs, especially on long routes.

Some of the savings will be funnelled into projects such the estimated $200-million upgrade to the Horseshoe Bay terminal, Stone said.

--By Camille Bains in Vancouver