BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan and Transportation Minister Todd Stone take questions on ferry route cuts at the B.C. legislature Monday.

BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan and Transportation Minister Todd Stone take questions on ferry route cuts at the B.C. legislature Monday.

North Coast leaders react to BC Ferry cuts

Leaders in Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii reacted swiftly to news of BC Ferry cuts on the North Coast.

Leaders in Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii reacted swiftly to news of BC Ferry cuts on the North Coast.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone and BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan announced the reductions Monday as part of a larger plan to cut cost in the years ahead. The announcement outlined a number of routes that will be impacted, but the North Coast was hit with the highest level of reduction.

The Prince Rupert to Port Hardy Inside Passage will see 39 fewer sailings in 2014, a reduction of 32 per cent, while there will be one less sailing per week between Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii, a reduction of 27.2 per cent. Between the two routes, BC Ferries expects to save a combined $5.72 million per year.

“The B.C. coastal ferry service has been wrestling with cost pressures for more than 20 years. We are making tough decisions today to ensure that our coastal ferry service is sustainable for future generations,” said Stone.

“These changes protect basic service levels and are in keeping with the fiscal realities facing provincial taxpayers.”

However, the reductions have been met with opposition and worry from those on Haida Gwaii and in Prince Rupert.

“Obviously BC Ferries had to make changes, but we do have concerns … changes to service will obviously affect communities.” said Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussallem.

“I do remember when there were a lot of bus tours with people coming through communities from Prince George to Prince Rupert, and as ferry fares increased that was priced out of the market. Now to increase fees and reduce service levels will make those more of a challenge.”

Although waiting to see exactly what the cuts will look like on the schedule, North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice said she was surprised by how much was being reduced.

“People expected cuts, but were surprised by the amount of cuts. I feel tremendous empathy for those in coastal communities and Haida Gwaii because this is their highway,” she said, noting the reductions also impact highway communities.

“It is potentially threatening for tourism.”

That sentiment was echoed by Scott Farwell, chair of Tourism Prince Rupert, who said the impact of the reduced service will be felt well beyond Prince Rupert as fewer sailings than available for bus tours and people travelling the provincial circle route.

“To put it bluntly, the government chose to view BC Ferries as a mode of transportation as opposed to the economic generator it could be for the province … it’s disappointing after all the meetings and discussions to describe the economic generator this is. This is not just going to impact Prince Rupert and Port Hardy, it’s going to mean fewer hotel reservations everywhere from Vancouver to Quesnel to Prince George,” he said, adding that reducing sailings to Haida Gwaii will have a huge impact.

“Eliminating one vessel per week is like closing the Coquihalla on Wednesdays. It’s how people on the island get their commerce … obviously the government is not viewing it as the highway it is.”

The route reductions, feedback forms and a schedule of community meetings are posted at the review website, www.coastalferriesengagement.ca. There is a community meeting scheduled for Prince Rupert on Dec. 5 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Crest Hotel.

Haida Gwaii Reaction

Mayor Carol Kulesha of Queen Charlotte said the impact of these cuts will be wide-reaching when it comes to both the economy and quality of life on Haida Gwaii.

“I’m actually quite horrified … this is our highway and they are just cutting chunks out of it. We use the ferry to Prince Rupert for medical treatment, to get goods on and off the islands and to travel to meet family and friends. Every cut that happens on that route is a desperate situation for us, and it is getting quite desperate,” she said.

“This is death by 1,000 cuts. We’re fighting to have our economy come back … this is a serious matter.”

Kulesha noted people rely on the Skidegate to Alliford Bay route to access the Sandspit airport while people from Sandspit rely on the ferry for everything from getting to work to medical appointments. Evan Putterill, the representative for Sandspit on the Skeena – Queen Charlotte Regional District, said he was taken aback by the extent of the  reductions.

“I didn’t think it would be this severe. The government seems hell bent on inflicting this onto our communities and I don’t know why,” he said, noting reducing service won’t address the key issues with BC Ferries.

“It is pretty significant. The cuts are quite a bit more severe than expected on that route in particular.”

Masset Mayor Andrew Merilees called the cuts “disgraceful”.

“The recent decisions announced by BC Ferries are unacceptable and show a continuance of the incompetence of the government in their management of our coastal transportation system,” he said.

“These decisions will do nothing to support the ferry system nor the communities that they serve and show a contempt for those who live and work along the North Coast.”

Consultation meetings on the service changes will be held at the community halls in Sandspit on Dec. 2, Queen Charlotte on Dec. 3 and Masset on Dec. 4. All meeting will take place from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.