A group representing coastal ferry users has recommended fares on some routes be cut by up to 25 per cent, even though the ferry corporation says it's in rough financial waters.
The group, made up of the heads of local ferry advisory committees, recommended the fare rollback on smaller ferry routes in a submission to the province's public consultation process on ferry service.
Rising fares are the most pressing concern of people who regularly use the ferries, said the group in a press release.
Since the ferry system was changed from a Crown corporation to a quasi-private system 10 years ago, "The guarantee of fair rates has failed dramatically," said the group. "Rates have gone up by more than 80 per cent, and in several cases well over 100 per cent."
Ferry fares are slated to go up another four per cent a year over the next three years.
High ferry fares have resulted in falling traffic and remain a "significant barrier to economic development" in ferry-dependent communities, said the group.
"It is neither reasonable nor possible for users to bear all the costs of fuel price hikes, and decades worth of government neglect of old, inadequate ships and terminals," they added.
The group pointed to ballooning debt-servicing costs - covering everything from new ferries to terminal upgrades - as one of the fastest rising costs for B.C. Ferries. Those costs have almost tripled from $68 million a year to $193 million a year in the past eight years, they said.
The cost of fuel has also skyrocketed, from $50 million a year to $121 million a year in the same time period. Labour remains the largest expense for B.C. Ferries, growing from $252 million a year in 2004 to $257 million annually in 2012.
The province held public meetings in November and December to get input on the future of B.C. Ferries after a review by the B.C. Ferry Commissioner earlier this year identified declining ridership and falling revenue as significant challenges facing the corporation.
The B.C. Ferry Commissioner has told B.C. Ferries that it has to cut service to save $26 million by 2016 - in order to avoid significantly higher fares. The corporation has also been told to find $54 million in "efficiencies."
Last year the corporation reported the lowest vehicle traffic in 13 years and the lowest passenger volume in 21 years. On many routes, ferries are run well below capacity for at least a portion of the year - meaning the ships run mostly empty.
The province subsidizes ferry operations by about $150 million each year in exchange for certain guaranteed levels of service.