The provincial is pressing ahead with controversial plans to cut $18.9 million in services, effective April 28, Todd Stone confirmed Wednesday. Revised sailing schedules will be posted by next month.
Stone also said the government still intends to eliminate free trips for seniors on April 1, instead offering them half-price passenger fares, and it will introduce slot machines onto some ferries as part of a pilot project.
The service cuts are part of the government's plan keep rising ferry fares in check, Stone said. He said the service cuts will save almost $19 million over the next two years.
"I understand the frustration that there is in coastal communities today," Stone told a news conference in Victoria.
"This is a very, very tough decision. I have said from day one that we as a government are under no illusions that there will be impacts felt in each and every community, no doubt about that."
He said BC Ferries are remaking schedules for ferry routes, which will see the elimination of some sailings during the mid-day periods.
Stone said many of the smaller routes are consistent money losers and are no longer sustainable in their current forms.
For example, Stone said there are times when the Bowen Island ferry near North Vancouver carries six vehicles and 20 passengers on weekends. The Skidegate ferry on Haida Gwaii at times carries one passenger and one vehicle.
Stone said BC Ferries is dropping service from Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island to Bella Coola on the central coast, but a smaller vessel will travel between the nearby coastal communities of Bella Coola and Bella Bella.
Opposition New Democrat ferries critic Claire Trevena said the service cuts will hurt the residents and economies of many Vancouver Island communities. She said businesses and Island residents are left wondering why the government continues to cut service to their communities.
"What we have here is a government that has literally turned its back on all of the coastal communities," she said. "I've been talking to chambers of commerce who are saying, 'What have we done to deserve this?'"
More than 3,700 people participated in a 23 public consultation events, while more than 4,000 others provided written and online submissions or were randomly selected to participate in a public opinion poll.
The majority of the participants disagreed with the proposed services cuts on the grounds that ferry service is an essential service to coastal communities, according to a government report released Wednesday.
The participants were also opposed to the idea of slot machines on ferries, with many saying it amounted to a tax on the poor and would take advantage of gambling addicts.
The report said opposition to dropping the seniors' discount was also strong, with many saying they disagreed with charging seniors to ride the ferries. Currently, seniors don't have to pay the passenger portion of their fares on most routes if they travel from Monday to Thursday, though they still must pay for a vehicle if they drive on.
Stone said the changes are required as part of an overall plan to operate an affordable and sustainable ferry system.
BC Ferries is quasi-private Crown corporation, which has the B.C. government as its lone shareholder.
Stone said the corporation is currently on track to find efficiencies within the corporation that will save $54 million.
He said federal and B.C. taxpayers will contribute more than $200 million to BC Ferries this year, while chipping in $1.7 billion over the past decade.
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