Trois-Pistoles—Les Escoumins ferry service cancelled for 2020 season
'Jaws dropped' at 'complete 180,' says captain, while Les Escoumins predicts 'catastrophic' impact on tourism
Transport Minister François Bonnardel said the government is making a "responsible" decision by cancelling ferry service between Trois-Pistoles and Les Escoumins for the 2020 season.
The municipal ferry corporation that manages the service was informed last week the government would not provide the $5 million it sought to replace steel plates on the hull of the 46-year-old ferry which plies that route.
L'Heritage 1 makes the crossing from the Lower Saint-Lawrence to the North Shore and back three to five times a day during the summer — drawing tourists and travellers to Trois-Pistoles, on the south shore, and Les Escoumins, across the St. Lawrence River.
Captain Jean-Philippe Rioux said the Compagnie de navigation des Basques had been regularly exchanging information with government officials and was confident the money would come through in time to make the repairs and renew its certification with Transport Canada for 2020.
Rioux said "jaws dropped" at the private ferry company when they were informed that would not be the case — calling the government's decision "a complete 180."
"It was really a big disappointment because all summer long they were really positive that there were going to help us — then there was a change of direction," he told CBC Quebec's Breakaway.
While the ferry is not managed by the provincial corporation, the Société des Traversiers du Québec (STQ), the government has stepped in in the past to help with major repairs.
"We can run and operate without any deficits, but when it comes time to go to dry dock and change steel plates, the price shifts very fast," said Rioux.
Minister Bonnardel said after the STQ examined the state of the ship, repair estimates climbed to $6 million.
"You have to understand the ferry in Trois-Pistoles is an old ferry, an old ship — it's 46 years old," Bonnardel told CBC.
"We don't know if it will cost maybe more when we will start the operation in the spring [of] 2020."
Captain Rioux disagreed with that assessment, however, pointing out that several ships on the St. Lawrence are older — for example, the NM Trans St-Laurent, which makes the crossing between Rivière-du-Loup in the Lower Saint-Lawrence and Saint-Siméon, on the North Shore.
He said the repairs were to extend the lifespan of L'Heritage 1 by at least 15 years.
"I know that ship like my back pocket, and there's nothing else than frames and steel plates. So you can't have many surprises there."
The 2019 ferry season was particularly busy, given the continuing saga of the STQ's Matane—Baie-Comeau—Godbout line.
The F.-A.-Gauthier has been under repair since December 2018, forcing the STQ to bring in four different replacement ships to ensure the Matane ferry service, 150 kilometres northeast of Trois-Pistoles.
This caused several delays and cancellations throughout the year, resulting in more than 250 complaints being lodged to the STQ.
Several travellers chose to book passage on L'Heritage 1, which started its season earlier than usual and ran at full capacity throughout the summer, ferrying more than 30,000 passengers across the St. Lawrence River.
The mayor of Les Escoumins, André Desrosiers, said makes the government's decision even harder to swallow.
"We feel like the STQ used us as a band-aid," Desrosiers said. "The only thank you we're getting is this news that our ferry is in jeopardy because the STQ doesn't want to invest anymore."
A citizen's assembly is being held Wednesday at the high school in Trois-Pistoles to address some of those concerns.
One of the organizers, Sébastien Rioux, said the ferry terminal in the heart of Trois-Pistoles, a town of 3,050 people, is one of the main economic motors.
He said more than 200 people are expected to attend the meeting that had to be moved to the high school to make more room.
"It shows how important the ferry is to the area," said Rioux.
He said if the ferry is out of commission in 2020, it will be "catastrophic" for the tourist season.
"There are thousands of people who stop here to eat or who stay for a couple of days sometimes. So it's very important for tourism, as well as for all those who work on the ferry who are going to have to find something else."
Meanwhile the F.-A.-Gauthier remains in dry dock at the Davie shipyard in Lévis. The government spent $1,357,869 from December 2018 to March 2019 to pay for chartered flights to passengers.
In January 2018, the STQ also purchased the NM Apollo from Newfoundland for $2.1M. The ferry was taken out of service just weeks later, after it crashed into both the Godbout and Matane docks and was deemed unseaworthy.
In September, Premier François Legault asked Quebec's auditor general to investigate what happened during the construction of the NM Félix-Adrien Gauthier.
With reporting from Cathy Senay, Thomas Cobbett Labonté and Radio-Canada