Anyone who has travelled on the Queen of Capilano this past week might have glanced at their ticket stub, noticed the rate increase and thought, "Oh no, that's too much."
The B.C. Minister of Transportation, Blair Lekstrom, agrees.
On April 1, ferry rates went up 8.2 per cent on minor routes such as Bowen Island. At a press conference, Lekstrom said, "It is a significant increase. It is not as high as what [BC Ferries CEO David] Hahn had projected originally, but a 4.15 and 8.23 per cent respectively on the major and the northern and minor routes, is still too high and we have to have a good look at this. We have a 90-day-process ahead of us. We want to hear from the public. We are going to look at this and see what we can do."
The ferry commissioner's report set the maximum ferry fare increases over the next four years. The fare hikes were lower than those requested by B.C. Ferries but for Bowen residents they mean an increase of more than eight per cent on April 1 of each year from 2012 to 2015 which comes to a total of more than 37 per cent after rates are compounded.
Lekstrom said, "It is obviously very clear that it's the families who are being strained right now. And transportation is a big part of their budget on a day-to-day basis. I'm going to have a good look at this with my colleagues and I know Premier Clark is extremely interested in ensuring that families can move around this province in an affordable manner and with a system that meets all of our needs."
Councillor Alison Morse, a representative of the Bowen Island Municipal Ferry Advisory Committee, was pleased with the minister's response. She said, "I think he is the first minister who has come out and said that. That is positive but we'll see how it will get resolved within the next three months. There are two options to reduce the fares. One is by making service changes. But they have to be agreed on by the province. Or the province could contribute more dollars."
Morse said, "I assume the worst impact would be on people who have to take the ferry every day, people who are coming over here to work or who go off island to work. They don't have another option. People who work from home or are retired can choose to travel less. The comment I hear is that for most people, their families are coming to visit less. There are young families who are struggling to make ends meet due to the high cost of housing. The dollar increase by itself isn't very much but when you add it to everything else, it makes quite a difference."
Ann Silberman, executive director of the Bowen Children's Centre, echoed this sentiment, "These are hard economic times and the increased ferry rate is putting another burden on families. Parents who are going off island to work feel the impact the most. But the ferry costs also affect ties between families and friends. Somebody told me that they often had visitors on weekends. Now they don't want to come because by the time they pay for the ferry and for parking in Horseshoe Bay, it is getting too expensive. This is putting up barriers for families and friends and for families who are separated by the water."
Families' activities are also affected. Silberman said, "Two people told me over spring break that they were not going into town to do things with the kids because the ferry costs are so prohibitive."
Silberman thinks that this can have long-range consequences as students have to travel off island for secondary schooling. She said, "I think that it is important that people have a chance to build friendships and relationships in the city. Those barriers aren't good."
Fare hikes are nothing new. Since 2003, the cost for a round trip for an adult and vehicle has increased from $25 to $39. This is felt most painfully by commuters who make up around 45 per cent of Bowen's population. But it also affects other aspects of island life. Realtor Dee Elliott said, "The [real estate] market has been depressed for three years now. It seems to be getting busier but the numbers are still not backing this up. I think that the cost and inconvenience of the ferry is a consideration for people who are looking to move here."
The ferry advisory committee is looking for input from Bowen residents. Morse said, "This is the time to encourage people to complete the survey how increased fares impact their travel."
Following the commissioner's report, the deadline for the ferry survey has been extended until Wednesday, April 12. It can be accessed through the Bowen Island Municipality's website (www.bimbc.ca) under news and notices, or by typing the following link into the browser https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/YXBRMDJ.
The province has until June 30 to respond to the commissioner's report. Lekstrom didn't go as far as promising an increase in ferry subsidies. He said, "It is too early to tell. We are going to look at all of our options." But, he stated, "we are going to do the best we can to bring a certainty to the people who use these ferries on a regular basis. My commitment is that I am going to go through [this report] thoroughly and have a discussion with my colleagues and find out what we can do to make sure that our ferries are affordable and meet the needs of British Columbians."