On Saturday a group of community and tourism leaders met with Gord Macatee, BC Ferry Commissioner, and Sheldon Stoilen, Deputy Commissioner.
With his appointment as Ferry Commissioner on May 1, Gord Macatee determined that the interests of ferry users, and the means to address them, had not yet been well defined. He suggested that government authorize and fund a review of the legislation and governance model by the Ferry Commissioner. On May 24 the province introduced legislation to support this review.
Otherwise, after nine years of being told we were idiots for not understanding why black was really white, somebody is prepared to listen to those of us who rely on BC Ferries. Indeed that was the tone of the meeting. Gord and Sheldon proved to be open and understanding, and really listened to the community and business leaders who had gathered to meet them.
Contrast that with the flashy BC Ferries consultation meeting here with Mr. Hahn and his management team on November 30, 2009. After that one Councillor Sheila Gordon-Payne said, “It was certainly not a consultation. There was a total disregard for the people who spoke and one resident who spoke up was treated more poorly than I have seen anyone at a public meeting treated in my whole career.”
Speaking on behalf of Tourism Prince Rupert and our partners, I told the Commissioner that the tourism sector, not just in Prince Rupert but on Vancouver Island and throughout all of northern BC, is built on reliable, every-second-day service by BC Ferries. Any interruption in service, or weakening of service such as through steadily rising fares, could be disastrous and could sound the death knell for many small businesses throughout BC.
I asked the Ferry Commissioner to consider five broad areas of concern for northern ferry users:
1. BC Ferries is an essential service for residents, and a vital component of the northern tourism industry, and should be considered an important part of the provincial highway system. We do not support the idea of the northern ferry service being economically sustainable in and of itself and should be further subsidized if necessary. We believe that as a driver for northern economic development it more than recoups government expense in tax revenues from the businesses and communities it helps sustain.
2. Ferry rates are prohibitive for use of BC Ferries as an essential service by residents. BC Ferries must not only be prevented from making further rate increases, but must be encouraged to reduce rates to encourage ridership.
3. BC Ferries must not be allowed to reduce service on northern routes, either as a result of cost-cutting or through whimsical marketing experiments such as their proposed Rt. 10A option.
4. BC Ferries must build northern traffic not only through affordable rates, but also through adequate marketing to an appropriate audience – which has also not happened.
5. With the economic downturn in coastal BC, BC Ferries jobs have helped sustain employment, and these jobs need to stay in coastal communities such as Prince Rupert.
We specifically addressed the issue of rising fares. BC Ferries is now experiencing their lowest ridership in 20 years. At least in the North reduced tourism is not to blame. In northern BC at mid-summer Visitor Centre visitation was up 13.5per cent over year previous, and at the same time in Prince Rupert hotel revenues were at their highest level in over ten years. The real issue is skyrocketing fares, increased by over 60 per cent in the past ten years, and domestic price resistance leading to BC residents and many visitors finding alternatives to travel on BC Ferries.
Many other issues were raised at the meeting. Another key concern was that BC Ferries had no inclination, and no binding reason, to listen to advisory committees or community consultations. They just had to have them. They didn’t have to listen.
We are extremely supportive of this review by the Ferry Commission. I’m confident that Gord and Sheldon heard what we said, and not what they wanted to hear. I’m confident that this will be faithfully communicated to the province. I pray that the province heeds the recommendations of this review, and acts.