Gulf Islanders applaud BC Ferries fare reduction — now want progress on waits

Live in a part of B.C. that's reliant on marine transportation, and you'll never have a bad word to say about B.C. Ferries prices going down.

With ridership at high levels, there's concern fare reduction will put extra strain on system

Passengers from Texada Island travel on the North Island Princess to Powell River as part of a five-hour journey to Comox. (Kam Abbott)

Live in a part of B.C. that's reliant on marine transportation, and you'll never have a bad word to say about BC Ferries prices going down.

"Things are looking better for us, no doubt about it," said Powell River Mayor David Formosa.

Formosa is applauding the B.C. government announcement in Tuesday's budget that it was following through on campaign promises and freezing fares on three major routes linking Nanaimo and Victoria to the Lower Mainland, rolling back fares on small routes by 15 per cent and restoring the Monday to Thursday fare discount rate for seniors.

But he says he's gotten no traction lobbying the government on Powell River's biggest issue ferry issue: anyone arriving from Metro Vancouver or Vancouver Island must pay a return fare.

"[Other] isolated communities like our own, only pay the ferry fare one way. So you pay to come in and then when you leave, it's free. In Powell River's case, you pay both ways," he says.

However, BC Ferries says the Powell River fee structure is unlikely to change due to the length of the route and terminal infrastructure. 

Traffic already up

In 2011, traffic levels on BC Ferries dipped to levels last seen in the 1980s. Critics of the corporation blamed several fare increases over the preceding decade.

But over the last three years, traffic has been increasing on nearly all routes, according to BC Ferries data.

Brian Hollingshead, co-chair of the ferry advisory committee for the Southern Gulf Islands, says it's likely due to increased tourism and because fares have stayed relatively stable recently.

"Because of the traffic increase, we've seen some peak loads where we've never seen them before, and chronic overloads we've never seen before," Hollingshead said.

In a letter sent last month to the chairs of other ferry advisory committees, he wrote "the coming fare cut is appropriate and overdue. It is most welcome.

"However, it will increase the demand, and the pressures on the system."

Vehicle traffic on the Southern Gulf Islands route coming from Tsawwassen was up 14 per cent in 2017 from the year before, but Hollingshead said the situation is most critical for Gabriola and Quadra islands.

"Is it reasonable all through the summer you should have one to two sailing waits? We don't think so, and I'm not sure anyone in BC Ferries thinks so either," he said.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena declined comment this week on future changes for BC Ferries, but there is a comprehensive review of the corporation — which is technically private — and a report is due in June. ​

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