In light of BC Ferries’ recent fare hike announcement, debate has reignited over whether the service is an essential lifeline -- or an over-subsidized luxury.

The British Columbia Ferry Commission revealed Monday that fares, which have increased 40 per cent in recent years, will jump another 12 per cent by 2016.

But in ferry-dependent communities like Gibsons, residents say high fares have already forced dozens of families to move back to the mainland – a claim backed up by school enrollment numbers.

“Families are leaving,” said school board chair Silas White. “Especially families with young children, who may be having difficulty with employment and the economy, which is closely connected with transportation and ferries.”

The town, like many Sunshine Coast and Gulf Island communities, relies heavily on tourism – but ferry ridership has sunk to a 21-year low, a trend many blame on the high cost of boarding.

Michael McLaughlin, economic coordinator for the Sunshine Coast, says the province should recognize the importance of the ferry system – and view it as a marine highway.

“All residents of B.C. should be paying for it just as I, as a Sunshine Coast resident, pay for highway upgrades across the province,” McLaughlin said.

When it comes to prices, BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan believes the fares are fair when compared to similar services.

It costs $65 for a single person in a vehicle to cross from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen on BC Ferries. A similar distance on a Coho Ferry in Washington State, from Port Angeles to Victoria, costs just over $60.

Have your say: Should B.C. be putting more money into keeping ferry fares down?

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Peter Grainger