BC Ferries to seek pandemic relief, as debts climb by millions of dollars each week

Photo: Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

It is too soon to say how much money BC Ferries will seek now that it is eligible for a federal-provincial pandemic-relief plan, but its debts continue to climb by millions of dollars every week.

“No idea what the number will be because we have yet to learn about the requirements of the program,” Mark Collins, BC Ferries president, said Tuesday.

As of two weeks ago, BC Ferries had lost $130 million in revenue and that figure is rising.

The system has increased service since reducing sailings in March but continues to lose between $700,000 and $800,000 per day, Collins said.

“The past losses are real,” he said, comparing it to running up a credit card to pay for gasoline for six months.

“It needs to be paid back. If the funding can be used for past losses, that gets rid of the debt and that’s a help to the ferry system.”

“It’s a real cost that needs to be addressed.”

The federal and provincial government have confirmed that BC Ferries is now eligible to apply for funds through the transit component of the Safe Restart program, as Translink and B.C. Transit already were.

B.C. Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said the corporation is expected to keep fares flat as it works towards a safe return of pre-COVID service levels.

“We don’t think that the best way forward for BC Ferries would be to be increasing fares.”

Federal cabinet minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced last month that Ottawa would provide $540 million for public transit in B.C., to be cost-matched by the province. The decision to allow BC Ferries to be eligible for that pool followed lobbying by the province and industry.

Wilkinson said Tuesday, “I think it is entirely appropriate in a province like B.C. that we are thinking about the transit needs for all communities, not just simply those folks who live in large cities and that’s fundamentally why BC Ferries was included.”

BC Ferries cut sailings when the pandemic hit in March. It has gradually increased service levels and all regular staff are back at work, although 400 summer workers were not hired.

In recent weeks the corporation has been running ferry system capacity at about 20 per cent higher than demand to ensure access for essential goods, workers, travellers and residents. It plans to carry on at that level. Vehicle traffic is down about 20 per cent compared with last year.

Most smaller runs were not affected. “The majority of impact has been on the big runs,” Collins said.

BC Ferries has shaved costs internally and paused plans for major capital upgrades at Swartz Bay and Horseshoe Bay terminals. Also on hold are plans for four or five larger ferries to replace the aging C-Class vessels, a program which would cost about $800 million.

Construction is continuing offshore on four new Island class ferries and one new Salish class ferry.

Times Colonist