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Freeze not enough say ferry users

Users of local small ferry runs worry the government has a warped version of what is an essential service. - Andrew Leong/file
Users of local small ferry runs worry the government has a warped version of what is an essential service.
— image credit: Andrew Leong/file

Many people living on small area gulf islands see a provincial rate cap on ferry fares announced Tuesday as a welcome life buoy.

But it will hardly be enough to stop them from going under.

Residents of Thetis and Penelakut Islands say the ferry system is their highway and until the province treats it as such, struggling islanders may have to rename their vessels The Queen of Isolation.

Mark Brown, a Penelakut band councillor, cautiously welcomed news ferry fares will be capped at up to 4.15 per cent on big and small routes until 2013.

The cap allows time for B.C.’s ferries commissioner to finish his review of the Coastal Ferry Act before making his final ruling on rate ceilings for the next four years.

But it won’t stop a June 1 fuel-surcharge fare increase from adding 2.5 per cent to the cost of riding Vancouver Island’s three large routes, and a five per cent rate rise for smaller island ferries such as Penelakut’s.

“It’s going up and up,” said Brown, “and on our island there’s not much employment, so it’s hard for our people over here.

“I’m glad they capped it. It was getting outrageous for everyone here.”

About 450 folks live on Penelakut. Band members living off reserve visit friends and family there.

They all feel the price pinch, Brown hinted.

“Every April it goes up four to six per cent; it’s terrible — it’s our only way off the island,” he said of the 25-minute ride to and from Chemainus.

Thetis Islander Ian Ralston sympathized, demanding Victoria treat and fund ferries as provincial highways.

“Thetis Island is strongly in favor of a detailed (ferry) review, and we’re very concerned about the ongoing and large increase in fares over the past 10 years or so — and what those will do to our community.”

Those effects wouldn’t be as onerous if ferryboats were akin to blacktop, suggested Ralston, who’s worked on the Community Advisory Committee for Ferries.

“At some point the government must realize this (ferry service) is part of the transportation infrastructure, and we need to be supported the same as highways.”

Instead, he said, the government has tried to turn ferries — a pseudo-private corporation — into a user-pay service.

“It’s the government’s job to provide the infrastructure we pay for in our taxes,” he said.

And Thetis islanders pay land levies aplenty, he said, because ferry services add value to their property, he explained.

“We don’t get a lot back for that.”

Ralston suggested ferry fares should rise with inflation — now about three per cent a year — though government servicing of ferries hasn’t kept up.

“Now Ferries’ capital and running costs are borne by users, and less and less are borne by the province.

“They turned Ferries into some sort of discretionary thing, but getting on and off Thetis and Penelakut its not discretionary — there’s nothing else you can do to get people, and goods and services across.”

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