A BC Ferries user group is shooting down a plan to cut up to 400 sailings because of a larger than expected deficit.
On Wednesday BC Ferries CEO David Hahn announced the provincially run corporation is looking at cutting the extra Friday and Sunday sailings on major routes during the off season to meet a forecast $35 million budget deficit this year.
Hahn says passenger trips have dropped to a 20-year low and vehicle traffic has dropped to an 11-year low. He blames the drop on rising fuel costs, a slow economy and a strong Canadian dollar that's keeping tourists away this summer.
But Strathcona Regional District Ferry Advisory Committee vice chair Jim Abram says the drop in ridership has nothing to do with a bad economy and everything to do with ferry rates being too high and the corporation only has itself to blame.
"This is just totally bizarre. The losses are the result of David Hahn and his pricing policies that have completely priced BC Ferries out of the market. This has nothing to do with the American dollar or fuel prices," said Abram.
In the past 20 years fares on the major routes for a car and driver have shot up from $29 to $75, while shorter routes have seen even more dramatic increases. Hahn has also become a lightning rod for criticism because of his million-dollar salary package.
"We've talked to hundreds and hundreds of people and heard from hundreds of people that used to come to the island...and they're not coming any more. Why is that? Because they cannot afford it," said Abram.
Minister waiting for proposal
Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom says he accepts Hahn's take that these are financially challenging times, but he says the ferry corporation can't sidestep the fact its pricing policies may be partly to blame.
The cuts to sailing still require the approval of the provincial government. However Lekstrom says he can't really comment until he receives the ferry corporation's proposal.
Premier Christy Clark says she is also closely following the issue.
"I'm alive to the issues that are there. They are serious. We need to be responsible in addressing them. We're working on that," said Clark.
BC Ferries CEO David Hahn says the extra sailings simply no longer have enough passengers to justify them.
"When you have a drop in traffic, you're not just sailing back and forth empty ships you know. You get a lot of fuel being wasted," said Hahn.
B.C. Ferries expects to announce details of new service reductions on September 19. But Hahn notes the sailing could quickly be restored if ridership levels increase again.
"Conversely if the traffic came back next year, we would add 400, 500, 600 sailings at the drop of a hat," he said.
Layoffs are also planned to reduce the pool of on-call workers used to crew those extra sailings, but the ferry corporation will work to minimize their impact by instituting a hiring freeze and promoting early retirement plans, he said.
No cuts are planned for smaller routes, such as those to the Gulf Islands.
Under the terms of its service contract with the province BC Ferries provides about 10,000 sailing a year.
The annual budget for BC Ferries is about $770 million dollars, including a $27 million annual subsidy from the federal and provincial governments.