Several hundred people turned out in front of the B.C. legislature on Tuesday morning to protest coming service cuts and rate hikes at BC Ferries.

Organizers say the rally is a chance for coastal residents to voice their concerns directly to government about changes coming in April.

Minister of Transportation Todd Stone says he welcomes the ferry protesters, but he has no intention of changing the plan to reduce ferry service in coastal communities.

BC Ferries protest

Several hundred BC Ferries users turned out at the legislature in Victoria to protest the cuts on Tuesday morning. (Stephen Smart/CBC)

Stone says it's a matter of sustainability and he believes most British Columbians agree with him.

"These are tough decisions, very tough decisions, but at the end of the day we have said consistently, actually before the election, during the election and ever since, certainly in the eight months I've been minister, we're going to do everything in our power to get ferries to a place of affordability and sustainability. That means making some tough decisions on service levels," said Stone.

Earlier this year the government announced it was cutting service on its minor and northern routes to save $19 million and stave off more fare increases. But fares are still going up four per cent on April 1.

A further $4.9 million in service reductions to major routes — including Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, Tsawwassen to Duke Point, and Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay — are expected to be announced by the end of March.

Loyalty program questioned

Critics are also questioning why the B.C. government-owned corporation spent $10,000 on a marketing survey to determine what customers thought of its plans for a loyalty or points program.

BC Ferries insists no final decisions have been made on the rewards plan, but it could replace the existing Experience Card that gives discounts to regular travellers on the smaller routes.

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BC Ferries is expected to announce $4.9 million in cuts to its major routes between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island by the end of March. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Powell River-Sunshine Coast NDP MLA Nick Simons questions why a company with a monopoly would need to run a loyalty program.

"We don't need more gimmicks. We don't need some sort of loyalty card to a service that we have no choice but to be loyal to. What we want is fair fares and good service."

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.

The rally is expected to kick off at the legislature at 11:30 a.m. PT.

With files from Stephen Smart