Sunday, December 23, 2007

Increases to ferry rates raising ire of rural residents and their MLA

"I taught Grade 12 math and I still have a tough time explaining this formula to people,"--North Coast MLA Gary Coons, explaining how he has troubles explaining the latest fare increases to coastal residents from BC Ferries.

Gary Coons spent the last week on the Queen Charlotte Islands and has just wrapped up the first phase of his information gathering sessions with rural British Columbians. People who are dependent on ferry services and he says people that they are having a hard time understanding the rocketing rise of fares on the rural routes.

With changes to the Coastal Ferries Act that privatized BC Ferries the ability to increase the fares by such high margins is legal, but certainly not well explained by the Ferry Corporation or accepted by the residents of those communities that are the hardest hit.

Prince Rupert residents can add their voices and comments to the mix on January 16, when Coons holds an information session in the city.,

In Friday's Daily News, Coons explained the results of his meetings and the outrage that coastal residents have for the increases.

'Stratospheric' fare hikes anger Coons
By Leanne Ritchie
The Daily News
Friday, December 21, 2007
Pages one and three

Having visited more than 15 ferry-dependent communities across the province in the last month, North Coast MLA Gary Coons is dismayed by stories he has heard of residents struggling to absorb increases on pre-paid fares, some as high as 11 per cent.

And just how B.C. Ferries is able to increase its fares by that much, many people are having a hard time understanding. But under the Coastal Ferry Act that privatized B.C. Ferries, it's all legal.

"These stratospheric increases are seriously impacting communities," said Coons. "An increase of 4.4 per cent a year is bad enough, but for communities like Sandspit and Skidegate, which don't have a robust economy to begin with, the continuation of these yearly 11 per cent fair hikes would be absolutely crippling."

Coons spent the past week visiting communities on the Queen Charlotte Islands, where residents use the ferry system not only to travel to and from the mainland but between communities on Moresby and Graham Islands via Skidegate and Alliford Bay.

It's part of a tour of all coastal ferry-dependent communities. Stops in the new year include Prince Rupert on Jan. 16, the Central Coast on Jan. 24, and Port McNeil, Sointula and Alert Bay on Jan. 30-31.

Many of these communities are dependent on the ferry system for their food, so even if residents choose to remain on-island, they are still being hit by higher prices at the grocery store, noted Coons.

"The ferry system was built using taxes paid by British Columbians; it is entirely inappropriate for our marine highway to be unaffordable for most citizens of this province."

Coons also echoed the concerns he heard from several members of the Ferry Advisory Committee, who believe that next April's fares will rise above the commissioner's allowance of four per cent and prepaid fare increases will also be in the double-digits.

He said BC Ferries has been using misleading numbers to mask the true magnitude of its fare increases. Out of 90 fare classifications, only three fall at or under the allowable 4.4 per cent increase.

The deception is especially clear when it comes to pre-paid fares, which are used primarily by island residents on minor routes, he said. These have seen the sharpest increases.

"I taught Grade 12 math and I still have a tough time explaining this formula to people," said Coons.

In fact, it's so complicated the B.C. Ferry Commission recently had to hold a seminar for chairs of the Ferry Advisory Committees to explain how it is that some routes are seeing fare increases of 11 per cent on prepaid fares.

The commission regulates ferry fare levels on 25 routes operated by BC Ferries and these routes are divided into seven groups.

Every three months, BC Ferries must report to the commission the actual average level of fares paid by its customers, reporting a single figure for each of the seven route groups. The figure is a weighted average for all the routes in the group, combining all the different traffic types, the different times of the week, different fares charged in that quarter, and other variables.

Secondly, the commission computes a maximum permitted level of average ferry fares for each route group. This ceiling is called the price cap for each group.

On routes outside the Lower Mainland, that price cap is currently 4.4 per cent.

According to the commission, BC Ferries must not allow the index of actual ferry fares for a route group to rise above the index of its price cap for more than one consecutive quarter.
However, within its fares structure, BC Ferries is allowed to charge different amounts for prepaid fares, weekend fares and other categories.

Coons explained BC Ferries has been losing business on full cash fares and while regular travellers in ferry dependent communities have been buying prepaid tickets that offer about a 30 per cent discount.

As a result, BC Ferries' average fare has been less than the maximum allowed average fare in recent years.

Now, B.C. Ferries is going to play catch up and it will come in the form of increases, for example in the range of 8.8 to 10.5 per cent on prepaid fares on the Skidegate-to-Alliford Bay route.
It is another example of how the Coastal Ferry Act is clearly failing the people of the province, said Coons.

"We need to freeze fares now," said Coons. "Until a Ferry Dependent Communities Strategy can be created to ensure the long-term viability of ferry routes to remote communities."

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