For years as opposition ferries critic, North Island MLA Claire Trevena joined the chorus of coastal residents calling for the B.C. government to make B.C. Ferries “part of the highway system.”
Now that she’s the NDP transportation minister, Trevena has other priorities. Her use of the term doesn’t mean the B.C. Ferries corporation should be brought back into the ministry, she said in response to a petition with 16,000 signatures calling on her to do that.
Strathcona Regional District (SRD) Director Jim Abram is from Quadra Island – as is Trevena. He launched the petition and delivered it to the Legislature on Monday.
“It was great, you know,” Abram said of having the petition introduced to the Legislature. “Adam Olsen, North Saanich-Gulf Islands MLA Green Party and their caucus met the week before to make sure that they were still aligned and that they were willing to present it. And they are still absolutely in favour as a caucus to see BC Ferries assumed back into the ministry.
“That was in their platform and they have stuck by it after the election which is kind of nice.”
The NDP government accepted the petition for consideration and now Abram and the petition supporters will give them a few days to decide what that means.
“I think within the week, I will be inquiring of the government what is it you are actually doing with the petition,” Abram said.
Abram is the SRD director representing the Discovery Islands and Mainland Inlets. He is also the SRD’s representative on the Regional District Ferry Chairs Group.
The NDP government has begun a review of B.C. Ferries operations, but it does not include changing the arms-length corporation back to a Crown corporation or a government department, and Trevena said ferry users generally aren’t asking for that.
“They want it to be affordable and accessible running the service they want,” Trevena told reporters at the legislature. “They don’t really care where it is housed as long as it’s affordable and accessible.”
Abram is surprised to hear Trevena make that contention because he says that’s not what he’s hearing.
“I was quite taken aback to see the minister’s governance comments,” Abram said, “The true picture is the people on this coast want to see BC Ferries put back in the ministry so that it will be kept affordable and accessible and cost efficient and all of that. That’s what people are saying on the coast.”
Olsen presented the petition to the legislature Monday, the latest of many since the B.C. Liberal government set up the current structure in 2003. British Columbia Ferry Services Inc., as it is officially known, became an independent, regulated company that could borrow its own money to update its vessels and terminals.
Olsen said he doesn’t expect ferry service to be free, but he doesn’t think it should have the “profit driver” in setting rates. “Certainly the people in my riding, Saanich North and the Islands, the Gulf Islands, consider B.C. Ferries part of their highway system, part of their marine infrastructure, if not highways then certainly marine transit,” Olsen said. “Rather than have B.C. Ferries trying to make profit, it needs to be part of our highway system.”
In fact B.C. Ferries has never attempted to make a profit. Net revenues from its main Vancouver Island routes were allowed to be used to reduce minor route fares under the last change in 2014, when the provincial subsidy was raised to $180 million per year.
B.C. Ferries also receives a federal operating subsidy of about $30 million a year, which B.C. representatives have pointed out is far less than federal support for ferry services in Atlantic Canada.
The B.C. Liberal government set up a B.C. Ferry Commissioner office to regulate rates as part of an overhaul that saw 7,000 low-usage ferry runs eliminated in April 2014.
After the cost-saving measures, in 2015 B.C. Ferries Commissioner Gord Macatee set rate increase caps of 1.9 per cent for four years, about one quarter of the rate increases the corporation had been considering to cover its operating costs.