British Columbia·In Depth

Ferry frustration makes waves in Powell River-Sunshine Coast riding

Fare hikes and service cuts have hurt Sunshine Coast communities that rely on BC Ferries to connect with the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.

'It's a town that used to be a mill town and now you sort of have to come and bring your job' says resident

Fare hikes and service cuts in recent years have many in the ferry-dependent community of Powell River grilling local candidates about the future of the service. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Getting to Powell River by car always involves driving off a ferry. Frustration here with BC Ferries is as common as a ferry lineup.

Located on the northern end of the Sunshine Coast, the community of nearly 20,000 people depends on ferry service to connect to the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.

Owners of small businesses such as Townsite Brewing feel that frustration acutely.

"Most of our business is done on the Sunshine Coast and Powell River, but we still need to get our product out to the major markets," said Ulrich Herl, a partner at Townsite.

Herl said he's waited for many a ferry to deliver kegs of beer.

Ulrich Herl, a partner at Townsite Brewing, relies on BC Ferries to make deliveries to Vancouver and Vancouver Island. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Changing economy

The mill in Powell River used to be one of the largest paper producers in the world, but many of those jobs have since disappeared and small businesses like the brewery are a growing part of the economy.

"It's a town that used to be a mill town and now you sort of have to come and bring your job, or make your job when you are up here," Herl said.

But that's hard when ferry service has not kept pace, he adds.

Fares on Powell River routes have jumped by more than 100 per cent since 2003, according to data compiled by the ferry advisory committee. Sailings have also been cut back.

Karen Skadsheim is a city councillor and acting mayor for the month of April in Powell River. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

'Totally insulting'

City councillor and acting mayor Karen Skadsheim said there's one thing that really rankles: free ferry rides in B.C.'s Interior.

Those free rides provide an unfair advantage to users in the Interior, Skadsheim said.

"To say that the coastal ferries are somehow different when in fact you can get to every single one of those Interior communities without a ferry, and you cannot get to any one of these communities on the coast without a ferry," she said.

"To say that those ferries are a highway and these are not is totally insulting."

It is not the first time BC Ferries has been an election issue. In 2013, former provincial politician and Powell River resident Gordon Wilson authored a report on ferry woes.

He found costs were unfairly high for coastal communities and that BC Ferries should be treated like a toll highway and financed through the B.C. Transportation and Finance Authority.

Mathew Wilson is running for the B.C. Liberals in the riding of Powell River-Sunshine Coast. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Loyalty and WiFi

​At one time, BC Ferries was a Crown corporation before the B.C. Liberals transformed it into an independent commercial organization in 2002.

Despite Wilson's recommendations, BC Ferries remains an independent entity.

Wilson's son Mathew is now running for the Liberals in Powell River-Sunshine Coast.  

The younger Wilson said he has had plenty of conversations with his father about BC Ferries, but he is on board with the B.C. Liberals in wanting to keep the ferries independent.

"There's a significant debt with the corporation and to bring that back onto the public books doesn't appear to be a direction the government wants to go in, and I support them in doing so," Wilson said

The Liberal plan for ferries includes a tax break and loyalty program for frequent users, as well as money for better WiFi service at terminals and on ships.

Wilson said he would also knock on federal doors looking for funding on par with what ferries in the Atlantic provinces receive.

Kim Darwin is running for the B.C. Green Party in Powell River-Sunshine Coast. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Call for federal bail out

Green candidate Kim Darwin said her party thinks BC Ferries should be turned back into a crown corporation, but not with its debt of roughly $1.2 billion. Darwin said she would turn to the federal government for help with that.

"I would like to invite every MP from the Interior provinces to Powell River on July 1, the long weekend, make sure they have to travel on both ferries — and I'm sure there will be some sailing waits," she said.

"Until they actually experience what we experience on a daily basis they really won't understand why it is important."

In the short-term, Darwin said creating a regulatory body that BC Ferries has to answer to could also help.

B.C. NDP candidate Nicholas Simons is seeking re-election in the riding of Powell River-Sunshine Coast. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Betting on fares

The NDP has also made promises around ferries: a 15 per cent fare reduction on minor routes and a fare freeze on major routes. The party also plans to restore free weekday travel for seniors.

Powell River-Sunshine Coast incumbent Nicholas Simons said his party would also look at moving BC Ferries back under the government umbrella — potentially even with its debt.

"The current government says restoring the service to a crown [corporation] or under the ministry of highways would create a problem for the British Columbia balance book. I think what we need to do is assess whether that is in fact true," he said.

'We are here'

Back at Townsite Brewing, the crew is filling kegs for Ulrich Herl's next delivery.

Like a growing number of people living in Powell River, Herl moved here for a change in lifestyle and to be able to afford a home.

"Communities like ours will never be a money maker, he said. "To say that we choose to live here, to a point that is true, but you still need to support us as a government because we are here."