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Control or regulation?

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For many people living on the B.C. coast, the only way to access the wider world is by sea, and the only way to travel by sea (unless you have your own boat) is through B.C. Ferries. Therefore, those who often travel to and from B.C.’s offshore islands take the affairs of B.C. Ferries quite seriously.

On March 12, activist Jim Abram delivered a petition to the B.C. legislature containing the signatures of over 16,000 people requesting the provincial government take control of B.C. Ferries by incorporating the operations into the Ministry of Transportation, according to CBC News.

Although the government has imposed new regulations on the company in recent months, and intends to keep an eye on their operations from now on, the B.C. government says it is content with mere regulation, and does not intend to take over the company.

The petitioners hoped that the new NDP-Green coalition government would be willing to reverse the Liberal party’s decision in 2003 to privatize B.C. Ferries, which had previously been a Crown Corporation under government oversight. The current government has imposed some changes on B.C. Ferries, including a freeze on fare prices on routes between Vancouver, Victoria, and Nanaimo, a 15 per cent fare reduction on smaller routes, and bringing back a Monday-Friday senior citizens’ discount. However, this isn’t enough for Abram and his petitioners who say that “It’s a matter of let’s treat ferries like the marine highway that it is.”

Abram’s comparison with highways is an appropriate one. Since most ferries carry cars, they serve as a direct road link with the mainland. The Trans-Canada Highway technically begins in Victoria, implying that B.C.’s ferry network is indeed a component of the public road system, in which case, it is not unreasonable to demand that this crucial link be administered as such.

It would be one thing if there were alternatives, but there are none. B.C. Ferries has no direct competitors. It is possible to fly, but not all communities have airports, and in any event, air transport cannot handle the volume of passenger and cargo traffic that must go to and from the islands. A private corporation, whose obligations are to deliver profit to its shareholders, not to best serve the public, with a monopoly and a captive customer base creates a dangerous situation that could (and arguably did) lead to price-gouging and slipping standards.

According to another CBC article on the subject, ferry traffic in 2011 dwindled to levels not seen since the 1980s, which critics of B.C. Ferries attributed to fare hikes following the company’s privatization, although ridership has been increasing on nearly all routes over the past three years. If B.C. Ferries were to jack up ticket prices or reduce service on certain routes, it would put a significant strain on B.C.’s economy by increasing the cost of travel and shipping in the coastal regions.

Seen from that light, government ownership of B.C. Ferries makes sense in order to ensure that the system best serves the people of the province, since many individuals, businesses, and communities are dependent on that system.

Despite the government’s reluctance to take control, the new regulations are at least a step in the right direction. B.C. Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said, “[People] want it to be affordable and accessible, running the service they want. They don’t really care where it is housed as long as it is affordable and accessible.”

While making the system affordable and accessible is indeed the important thing regardless of the exact method, she cannot speak for all people. At least 16,000 of our province’s citizens would prefer that the operators of B.C’s ferry network were accountable to the public, not narrow private interests.

Image: Simer Haer/The Cascade

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