The B.C. Conservative Party has promised to clean up what leader John Cummins calls a mess at BC Ferries. The CBC News Reality Check team wades through the spin and checks the facts behind the campaign promises.

In one of only two campaign announcements so far, B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins says BC Ferries must return to government control, with fewer overpaid managers, so fares can go down.

"The first step that we would take in trying to fix, if you will, BC Ferries is to eliminate the three boards that currently operate here," said Cummins.

"Three boards is far in excess of what is needed, where one board’s function is to scrutinize members of other boards."

But that's not quite true.


Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee and his predecessor say they are not a board. (CBC)

BC Ferries is owned by a nine-member Board of Authority, whose sole purpose is to select members of the separate nine-member board that runs the corporation.

There is no third board.

'Careful audits'

BC Ferries does have a commissioner, who serves as the regulator.

Gord Macatee, who works part time, made $62,000 last year and has a deputy commissioner to help him.

It's his job to cap ferry fares and make sure BC Ferries doesn't take advantage of its monopoly in the ferry business.

He won't do an interview during the election campaign, but he and his only predecessor say they are not a board.

Professor Peter Hall, who teaches urban studies at Simon Fraser University, agrees.

"The ferry commissioner is not a board. The ferry commissioner is just a couple of individuals who do careful audits," said Hall.

But Cummins says arm's-length oversight is not what BC Ferries needs.

"We would bring BC Ferries back under the control of the minister of transport. We think that this exercise in free markets simply hasn't worked with BC Ferries," Cummins said in a radio debate.

Christy Clark was in the Official Opposition when government did control BC Ferries in the late 1990s.

"They're still a mechanic's dream, but a taxpayer's nightmare," Christy told the legislature in 2000.

At the time, outrage was growing over NDP government spending on the construction of three PacifiCat fast ferries -- at $454 million, more than double the amount budgeted.

The fast ferries fiasco led to criticism that BC Ferries needed less political interference and more corporate structure.

By 2003, the Liberals had taken over, selling the fast cats for only $19 million, and turning BC Ferries into an independent, yet subsidized, corporate entity.


The PacifiCat ferries cost the B.C. NDP government about $450 million to build in the late 1990s. (CBC)

The province can now only appoint two of the nine BC Ferries board members.

Fares 'simply too high'

Still, Cummins insists BC Ferries is rife with cronyism and a complete financial failure.

"BC Ferries should be seen as an extension of the highway. The fares that you have to pay now to get on to the ferry and off again are simply too high," Cummins said.

Cummins has promised to lower fares, saying that will boost ferry traffic.

But SFU's Peter Hall says returning BC Ferries to the Crown won't save money.

"Even if you took it back into government, you'd still need consultants, or public servants, or somebody to exercise the oversight, because changing the governance structure doesn't change the fact that it is a public service and that it does have monopoly characteristics."

Getting rid of the authority board, the commissioner and the deputy commissioner would only save $430,000, according to costs revealed in the latest BC Ferries annual report.

The BC Ferries board of directors did not report their earnings.

But merging these three bodies does not save much money given the fact BC Ferries is nearly $1.5 billion in debt.

And that's a loss B.C. taxpayers would have to absorb under Cummins's proposal.

So Cummins's plan to fix BC Ferries just doesn't add up, says CBC’s Reality Check team.