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No ferry cuts before election, minister vows

Two women walk along a boardwalk as the B.C. Ferries vessel Queen of Oak Bay is docked at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal in West Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday March 5, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

As BC Ferries struggles to stay afloat financially, users of the province's coastal ferry system say they are most concerned about basic levels of service being maintained, but are open to reducing underused routes or sailings.

That is some of the feedback found in the results of an eight-week public consultation on the future of BC Ferries, released Tuesday by the provincial government. However, Transportation Minister Mary Polak said there would be no new cuts before the May 14 provincial election, prompting some critics to label the laborious consultation process merely a stalling tactic.

Ms. Polak announced the process last fall as a way of garnering public input on how to find $26-million in savings for BC Ferries by 2016, as well as long-term options to keep the network sustainable. Nearly 100 sailings have already been cut from major routes since last fall.

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There were about 4,500 separate responses during the consultation process, including more than 2,000 people attending consultation events and more than 1,200 filling out feedback forms, according to the report. About 45 per cent of participants, in addition to a similar percentage in a public opinion poll, identified maintaining basic levels of ferry service as the top priority. Some communities are completely dependent on the ferries to access employment, education and other essential services. More than 50 per cent of respondents ranked it either first or second most important on feedback forms.

The forms showed 17 per cent of respondents considered "service reductions on routes that experience significant annual financial shortfalls" a top priority, while 29 per cent ranked it first or second most important. Around 66 per cent of participants were open to BC Ferries introducing new technologies, such as cable ferries and passenger-only vessels.

There were no recommendations in the report.

Maurine Karagianis, NDP BC Ferries and coastal communities critic, said that while there is value in public consultation, the report's findings – that the ferry system is an integral part of the community and considered part of the province's transportation infrastructure, for example – "are things we have known all along."

"I think the reality is it seems a bit of a waste of time and money …," Ms. Karagianis said. "I think all of this was an effort to buy them some time and perhaps put this decision-making off until after the May election."

Ms. Polak countered by saying the fact that BC Ferries has already cut 98 sailings from major routes shows the government's willingness to "raise the spectre" on the issue.

"And, [if we didn't want to,] we certainly wouldn't have begun this consultation, which puts reductions so squarely in front of people," she said.

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The minister said participants who turned in detailed written submissions on how to change ferry service would probably find Ms. Karagianis's suggestion that nothing new came from the consultations "fairly offensive."

"It's unfortunate that she would discount that kind of contribution from the public," she said. "We, in turn, find it very valuable."

Independent BC Ferries Commissioner Gord Macatee said while there was nothing surprising in the report, it "certainly quantifies things in a way that we weren't able to do in my review," released January 2012. Having tangible figures will help the company better identify the province's needs, he said.

In his report, Mr. Macatee noted increasing costs and the need to replace aging vessels could lead to funding shortfalls of an average $56-million a year from 2016 to 2020 and continue at $85-million a year from 2020 to 2024.

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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