Commissioner’s review might fix the Coastal Ferries Act

I knew I would be pleased by Ferry Commissioner Gordon Macatee’s review of BC Ferries.

I knew I would be pleased by Ferry Commissioner Gordon Macatee’s review of BC Ferries. Macatee listened to coastal users, hearing from some 2,000 people during 40 meetings in 27 communities.

I won’t go into the report in detail – its 24 key recommendations have been widely reported. Virtually all stakeholders have expressed pleasure with the review.

Macatee of course began by recognizing some of the obvious. The ferry system is well run but could be better, probably because the province has no long-term vision for BC Ferries. Rising costs have led to fares reaching a tipping point that prevent people from riding the ferries. I’m sure that Macatee heard about high fares from every single one of those 2,000 people.

Although he stopped short of calling for a rollback on prices, one of the key recommendations is that future price cap increases should be held to the rate of inflation. Since the quasi-privatization of BC Ferries in 2003 the consumer price index in BC has gone up by 14 per cent, while ferry fares have risen by almost 50 per cent on major routes and 80 per cent on minor and northern routes. The Commissioner’s review makes it clear that this is just a taste of what is to come if the system is allowed to continue on its current path.

At the same time there has been no increase in government subsidy. As part of the review the Commissioner compared BC Ferries to other ferry services and concluded, “All of the comparable ferry systems we’ve looked at depend on public funding to survive. The B.C. ferry system is presently less dependent than many others, but the re-investment that is needed over the next decade is only going to be possible with more contributions from the taxpayer.” In this sense the review goes a long way toward a return to the understanding that BC Ferries is a marine highway.

I think that some caution should be exercised in following the capacity utilization recommendations. I agree with MLA Gary Coons with regard to Macatee’s suggestion to make reservations free – it’s intriguing, but should be tested in a pilot project before being widely implemented. As Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan pointed out after the review was released, reservations are presently worth about $15 million, which would have to be made up somewhere else under the model of the current Coastal Ferries Act – and there could be added costs associated with greatly increased reservations.

The only recommendation that strikes me as completely off is the one that municipal or regional governments should be able contribute funding to purchase fare reductions on local routes, or add a marketing surcharge to increase ridership on local routes through destination tourism marketing. It’s an interesting thought, but it seems to me to leave an opening for the province to continue its trend to offload provincial responsibilities onto municipalities. The municipality can make a financial contribution to the provincial highway system? That strikes me as an alarming precedent. And even more significantly, in the case of the hardest hit minor and northern routes, we’re talking about municipalities that are either broke or nearly so.

In general, however, I’m very pleased with the report. I support the increased oversight by the Ferry Commissioner as detailed in the report. In fact, I support a complete rewrite of the 2003 Coastal Ferries Act. The profit-driven approach was never sustainable. In Macatee’s view, while “a financially sustainable operation is in the interest of both ferry users and taxpayers,” the driving principal concern should be “to protect the interests of the ferry users and the taxpayers [who]… depend on ferry services to be affordable and reliable.” Specific to the northern service, a return to cross-subsidization between routes is the obvious first step.

The province wanted recommendations from Gordon Macatee’s review of BC Ferries. The ball’s now in their court.