As British Columbians start to debate the future of our troubled ferry service, we would be well served as passengers, voters and taxpayers to come to grips with the implications of the decision we face.
When public ferry service began in the middle of last century, we were told it was part of the highway system - and that it would be treated as such indefinitely. With the promise of steadily expanding service and subsidized fares, communities blossomed along the coast, growing in size and in economic output in a way they couldn't have without the fleet.
But in recent years, that promise has become harder and harder to keep. The legacy of government mismanagement, skyrocketing fuel prices and a growing debt have made the service increasingly unsustainable.
B.C. Ferries has been told to slash runs and find "efficiencies" to make up the difference, but cutbacks alone won't solve the problem. Boats and terminals continue to age, fuel prices show no sign of retreating, and debt-servicing costs are bound by necessity to rise. Meanwhile, there is little room to push up fares further, as they risk pricing the service out of the market.
British Columbians are faced with a bleak choice: Either we put an ever-larger share of the tax pie into our ferries, or we allow our coastal communities to wither - which would itself come at a cost to the economy.
The decision is by no means an easy one, but we must at least understand what is at stake before we begin the process of choosing.