Don’t cut BC Ferries service when the province is on the verge of reaping a huge windfall from natural gas in the coming years.
That was the plea from one Union of B.C. Municipalities delegate who sought to link the two issues at a forum on the economy Wednesday.
“Coastal communities can’t afford to wait for that revenue to start coming in,” said Evan Putterill, Skeena-Queen Charlotte Regional District director for Haida Gwaii and chair of the North and Central Coast Ferry Advisory Committee.
The Sandspit resident said ferry-dependent towns have been badly damaged by two decades of rising fares and further cuts to service now being eyed will make their plight worse.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone agreed fares can’t go higher.
“We can debate whether we’re at the tipping point or nearing the tipping point or past the tipping point, but fares are at the point where they’re not affordable any more,” he said.
But he warned “service optimization” cuts are coming and will be unveiled in the coming months.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong noted new ferries cost hundreds of millions of dollars and asked delegates to indicate by show of hands if government should buy from overseas builders when they’re the low bidder or if local shipyards should win no matter the cost. The room was split.
The ferry question came after de Jong described liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a “generational opportunity” for B.C. that’s estimated to eventually generate government income of $10 billion a year.
Asked if LNG is being oversold, he said the skeptics are wrong.
“People still say ‘It’s mythical, it’s not happening, it’s not real.’ LNG is real and will result in significant additional revenues.”
He said it promises a renaissance for northern B.C., reversing a decades-long trend of depopulation.
Other cabinet ministers at the forum cautioned the gas boom means growing pains for communities and a scramble to recalibrate training programs so workers have the required skills.
Chetwynd Mayor Merlin Nichols urged the province to seek ways to make it more attractive for coal and gas workers to move to towns in the northeast rather than work in camps without becoming part of the fabric of local life.
“If you sit in any flight from Fort St. John back to the Lower Mainland, you’re going to be sitting beside somebody who’s going home, taking home the paycheque after living in camp in the last two or three weeks,” Nichols said.
Asked about UBCM’s unanimous call for government to commit to systematically sharing its revenue with cities in strong years, De Jong noted that other options include paying down debt or reducing taxes.
He also said B.C. has been modestly sharing forestry resource revenue for years through agreements with local communities.