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BC government asking public where to cut ferry service

The British Columbia government has launched a $700,000 consultation process as it decides where to trim ferry service.

"Some tough decisions need to be made to meet the current challenges," said Mary Polak, the transportation minister. "Service adjustments are needed to meet the present challenges."

The publicly owned ferry company's financial viability has been a concern for several years, with fares increasing and ridership dropping.

The provincial government spends $150 million a year on the service, and the federal government puts in $30 million. In May the province said it would contribute an additional $79.5 million spread over four years to keep fare increases lower than they might have been.

"Taxpayers are already contributing a significant amount," said Polak.

The consultation, which began today with a website launch, will include a tour of coastal communities between Nov. 6 and Dec. 8. It is aimed at finding $26 million in service cuts over four years.

Discussion materials prepared for the process look at each route and how busy it is at various times of day. The major routes, Swartz Bay to Tsawassen and Departure Bay to Horseshoe Bay, are the only two that make money.

The route between Duke Point and Tsawwassen, which is heavily used by commercial traffic, loses $29.86 million a year, or about $50 for each vehicle it carries.

On a per vehicle basis, the northern routes are particularly expensive. The Port Hardy to Prince Rupert route loses $2,365 per vehicle and a total of $28.6 million a year. Prince Rupert to Skidegate has a shortfall of $1,802 per vehicle, or $24.2 million a year.

The route between Mill Bay and Brentwood Bay, both of which are on Vancouver Island, allows drivers to bypass the highway over the Malahat. BC Ferries has threatened in the past to close the route, a move that met with strong local opposition. Doing so would save the company $2.14 million a year.

The government's feedback form asks respondents what criteria should be use to determine where to cut. It also asks them to rate alternatives like passenger-only vessels, cable ferries and building bridges. Options like increasing the government subsidy or changing fares are not given, though there is space for additional comments.

BC Ferries president and CEO Mike Corrigan said the company is supportive of the government's process. It's up to the province to decide what service levels and fares it wants, then contract with BC Ferries accordingly, he said. "This is clearly a government policy issue."

B.C. Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee said the consultation process is in line with what he recommended in a report released in January. The government has already increased its contribution to BC Ferries and it is reasonable to look at service levels, he said.

Polak said she expects the report on the consultation in the new year, but allowed that it's unlikely the government will make any major change before the May 14, 2013 election.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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