Ferry fare uproar pits locals vs state

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Ferries, an integral part of transportion along Norway’s vast coastline, are suddenly at the center of a new nationwide uproar. It surged when ferry fares spiked after New Year, and now several large counties have banded together to mount the latest major challenge to the country’s conservative government coalition.

Ferries are often the only option when traveling along Norway’s vast coastline, and serve as a lifeline for local residents. Many commute to work and school on ferries, and were shocked when a wave of ferry fare increases crashed over them last month. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Morten Møst

The ferry uproar has been compared to last year’s public protests over road tolls (bompenger). In this case, it’s not linked to any direct moves to discourage driving (unrealistic in outlying areas that lack frequent public transport service) but it has been tied to the costs of other climate measures to reduce carbon emissions. Electric ferries, for example, are due to replace conventional ferries with relatively high emissions and they’re expensive. Ferry piers will need to be upgraded to accommodate them. Efforts are also underway to usher in the same AutoPass system used for tolling that eventually can be used to automatically pay for car ferry fares.

Others claim it’s “too easy” to blame the costs of Norway’s need to cut its own emissions on the huge rise in ferry fares that can cost commuters thousands more kroner per year. Ole August Iversen of the Socialist Left party (SV)’s youth organization in Møre og Romsdal points to how ferry service has been privatized over the years, with routes sold to those offering the allegedly best service at the lowest cost. That, Iversen claims, initially seemed to cut the counties’ and the state’s costs since ferry firms underbid each other, but it also led to consolidation of the ferry business and fewer ferry firms today. Now there are fewer players bidding and since they face higher demands, they’re boosting fares.

“Now the counties are struggling with their own budgets, while (ferry firms) Fjord1, Norled, Torghatten and Boreal Sjø are sailing with large profits,” Iversen claimed in a commentary in newspaper Klassekampen. He also argues that it’s now difficult if not impossible for the local county governments to take back responsibility for the ferries, and that the ferry companies “have most of the power” over the roughly 130 ferry routes around Norway, of which the state is responsible for 17 and the counties responsible for the rest.

Ferries, like this one run by Brønnøysund-based Torghatten, are an integral part of travel along the coast and between the islands of Helgeland in Nordland County. The ferries are used by tourists and residents alike. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Morten Møst

Newspaper Aftenposten has reported much the same, writing that while commuters, other ferry passengers and not least vehicles are faced with fare hikes totalling as much as NOK 4,000 (USD 440) for a family of four per month, the ferry companies have been raking in billions. Aftenposten noted that the stocklisted ferry firm Fjord1 (in which the investment firm Havilafjord controlled by the Sævik family has the largest stake) has seen its pre-tax profits rise from NOK 76 million in 2014 to NOK 715 million in 2018. Norled was sold last year to Nordic firm CapMan Infra and the Canadian firm CBRE Caledon Capital Management. The biggest owner of Torghatten is the Forbergskog family of Brønnøysund, while Boreal Sjø is owned by Boreal Holding AS that in turn is owned by Everbright Overseas Infrastructure Investment Fund LP, based in Hong Kong.

Dagfinn Neteland, chief executive of Fjord1, denies that its strong profits are linked to higher ferry fares. “The key is efficient operations,” Neteland told Aftenposten. “And we have to earn money, in order to get the banks to back an investment program” of up to NOK 4 billion. That can explain why the costs of buying the now-privatized ferry firms’ services “have increased strongly” for both public entities and passengers. The state has also seen ferry costs triple since 2014 along its highway systems that include ferries.  Some of the state’s higher costs are also linked to the use of more ferries and more frequent service, a state highway official told Aftenposten

For commuters who need ferries to get to work or school, the latest round of fare hikes hurts. “This has been a terrible increase,” passenger Kristen Hagen of Ulsteinvik told Aftenposten while waiting for the ferry from Sulesund to Hareid after the end of her workday in Ålesund. “I’m already paying NOK 3,500 (USD 380) a month for a ferry pass with a rebate. From this summer, I’ll have to pay at least NOK 1,000 more.”

Tourists can also expect major increases in ferry fares, also for the bobiler (motor homes) that take up lots of space on board. There were lined up for a Helgeland ferry last summer. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Joachim Orvik of Midsund outside Molde, who also commutes to work by ferry, was also among the many upset by ferry fare hikes. “These kinds of increases have a huge impact on folks’ everyday lives,” Orvik told Aftenposten. He was among the initiators of the Facebook group “Protest against higher ferry fares in Møre og Romsdal” that already had more than 20,000 members by mid-January.

With county politicians claiming their hands are all but tied, some of the biggest counties most dependent on ferries teamed up last week to demand more funding from the state. Leaders of Troms og Finnmark, Nordland, Møre og Romsdal and Vestland also joined forces with the national organization KS that represents governments at the kommunal (municipal) level.

Their goal in the new “ferry front” is to coordinate efforts directed at the state government and Parliament to secure better financing of ferry service. “We’re thinking that we’re stronger together than we are when negotiating separately,” Tove-Lise Torve, county mayor for Møre og Romsdal, told news bureau NTB.

Torve said the new alliance has “concrete plans” for influencing central state authorities ahead of the new revised state budget expected in May. “We have clear expectations and believe the government and the Parliament have a responsibility to secure adequate ferry service along the coast,” Torve told NTB.

Local residents, it’s argued, simply can’t live with the huge fare increases imposed from January 1st. Some of them amounted to nearly 40 percent, prompting officials in Nordland to relent and reduce them again to last year’s levels plus the state’s general 3.1 percent increase. They’re due to shoot up again this summer, though.

Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats took over as Norway’s transport minister late last month, and immediately faced the ferry uproar among other issues. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has insisted that the counties are responsible for setting their own ferry fares. Her two new government ministers in charge of local governments and transport, however, were dispatched to Aukra in Romsdal last week in hopes of quelling the uproar that began in Nordland and spread to the other counties last month. New Transport Minister Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats and his government colleague Linda Hofstad Helleland of the Conservatives expressed sympathy of the ferry fare hikes and claimed they think the problem can be solved.

Aftenposten reported on three possible measures, including an “adjustment” in state funding for electric ferries used on county routes, a re-evaluation of the AutoPass system and how its costs can be shared, and a standard fare- and rebate system that would apply to all ferries in Norway. None of that can offer any immediate relief, however.

The new multi-county initiative wants faster action to bring fares back down. County leaders who have banded together claim the state can’t send the bill for AutoPass to passengers and that the state must fund a bigger portion of electric ferry costs. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) editorialized in favour of a major overhaul of all road- and ferry-payment systems to cover their costs. It suggested veiprising, a high-tech form of tracking and calculating private individual’s transport costs over a given area, as “the most rational idea” that could gather all such fees into a single system. It has raised privacy concerns, however, and is likely several years off in the future.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund