BC Ferries is going ahead with nearly $19 million in service reductions despite widespread opposition, Transportation Minister Todd Stone announced Wednesday.
The province confirmed it will be cutting minor and northern ferry routes, and implementing changes to major routes, beginning in late April.
"Better alignment of service levels to the demand, while protecting basic levels of service, is necessary to ensure a coastal ferry service that's affordable, efficient and sustainable for future generations," said Stone.
BC Ferries said it will be meeting with community representatives to determine the schedules of affected minor and northern routes, which the government estimates will result in $14 million in net savings. Changes could include eliminating mid-day sailings while retaining early morning or late evening sailings.
Meanwhile, service reductions to major routes — including Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, Tsawwassen to Duke Point, and Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay — will be announced by the end of March and are expected to save $4.9 million.
There is one route, however, that will see an increase in service: Bella Coola to Bella Bella. Summer service between the northern communities will increase from one sailing per week to three or four sailings per week.
"What we're trying to do here is try to squeeze out of the system the under-utilization where it makes sense, trying to be as respectful as we possibly can be with respect to what coastal communities need."
Seniors' discount slashed, gaming going ahead
BC Ferries is also moving ahead with a reduction to the seniors' discount. Currently, people 65 and older walk on for free. Starting April 1, however, they will be required to pay a half-price passenger fare Monday to Thursday on major and minor routes. They will continue to pay full-price for their vehicles.
Stone announced cuts to the seniors' discount in November, generating strong public opposition from critics who insist the move unfairly targets a vulnerable population.
Meanwhile, BC Ferries announced in January it would be hiking fares 3.5 per cent on most routes to accommodate the rising cost of diesel fuel. On Wednesday, it said revenue from a reduced seniors' discount will prevent future fare increases.
The province also confirmed it will pursue a gaming pilot project on one of BC Ferries' major routes.
In November, when the idea of installing slot machines on ferries was first announced, the government said the pilot project would start with the Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay run.
This, too, has attracted widespread opposition as the number of severely-addicted gamblers has risen in B.C. in recent years.
"Consultation process was a sham"
The government's announcement follows two months of public consultation and is summarized in the 2013 B.C. Coastal Ferries Engagement Summary Report.
However, some critics are questioning the sincerity of the engagement process because many of the changes are going forward despite overwhelming opposition.
"It's clear to me that the consultation process was a sham. The people were asked to come out and provide their input and opinion into the government's plans. They were completely ignored," said NDP MLA Nicholas Simons.
Simons said the government is ignoring the serious impacts ferry service reductions will have on coastal communities, including in his Powell River-Sunshine Coast riding.
He said many high school students will no longer be able to take part in music or after school sports because the ferries will not run late enough for them to get home.
"This has a huge impact on the lifestyle of our communities and that's what this government's failed to hear."
In 2012, BC Ferries was facing a funding shortfall of of $114 million per year within five years.
The government insists the changes announced Wednesday are necessary to protect long-term ferry services. It will release specific details of route changes in late March and implementation will begin in late April.