A private ferry operator has cleared the first hurdle to operating a passenger-only ferry service from downtown Nanaimo to downtown Vancouver.

After months of negotiations, Island Ferries and the Nanaimo Port Authority have agreed to an offer to lease a portion of the existing Nanaimo facilities.

The ferry service would run on two brand-new ships, six times a day.

The first ferry would depart from Nanaimo's cruise ship terminal at Port Bay at about 6:30 a.m. The final ferry would leave Vancouver at 9:45 p.m.

"We will adjust departure time so that folks from Vancouver Island can take in events in Vancouver and get back the same night," said David Marshall, director of operations for Island Ferries.

Financing needed first

Island Ferries must first secure the financing proposed by the port authority. If a lease is signed, it will trigger an environmental review assessment.

The operator is also in talks with TransLink to secure a license of occupation for the SeaBus terminal downtown. 

Two operators have previously attempted passenger-only ferries between Nanaimo and Vancouver, but both shut down their services.

Island Ferries has consulted with one of them — HarbourLynx — to learn from past mistakes, Marshall said.

That includes operating two ships as opposed to one, and equipping each of them with four propulsors instead of two so that service can continue should an engine failure occur.

"We're putting together a service that people can actually depend on," Marshall said.

Snuneymuxw 'undermined' in talks

Noticeably absent from Wednesday's announcement was the Snuneymuxw First Nation, a key partner in the negotiations.

Requests for expressions of interest from the port to operators mandated consultations with Snuneymuxw.

But Snuneymuxw councillor Doug White told CBC News the First Nation has been shut out of talks.

"The port authority has taken different kinds of steps to undermine Snuneymuxw participation in the process," he said.

Snuneymuxw, which has treaty rights to the land, is concerned about the sensitive ecology around the proposed facility and the economic impact it will have on its members, White said.

Marshall acknowledged that the operator, port authority and Snuneymuxw had yet to meet face-to-face.

"I don't know why," he said. "We're the tenant. That responsibility to bring us together rests with the landlord — the port."

Bernie Dumas, CEO of the Nanaimo Port Authority, said substantive discussions with Snuneymuxw will begin once a lease is signed and an environmental review is launched.

"Snuneymuxw will have ample opportunity to discuss their concerns," he said. "That will determine whether we do the lease or not."

But Snuneymuxw is pushing a proposal to replace the Nanaimo Port Authority with an alternative harbour governing board, calling the port authority model "broken."

With files from CBC's All Points West.