Delays, blown deadlines plague new ferry builds
Minister defends process, says vessel replacement 'moving along as expected'
A substitute for the broken-down replacement vessel should be working the Fogo Island run Thursday, but the status of a long-term fix for the province’s aging ferry fleet remains murky.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government launched its vessel replacement strategy in 2006, pledging "aggressive action" to address what it called the "deteriorating ferry system in the province."
But it has not been smooth sailing since.
Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson attempted to calm the waters Wednesday, soothingly noting in the legislature that "our vessel replacement strategy is moving along as expected."
But a review of government press releases, ministerial statements and financial documents issued in recent years contradicts that viewpoint.
They reveal that the government has repeatedly blown deadlines, and spent just a fraction of the tens of millions it has announced — and repeatedly touted — in recent years.
The Department of Transportation won’t say when long-awaited new ships will actually hit the water, declining to answer specific questions posed by CBC News.
Fogo a no go
The issue hit the deck again this week, when the department announced that a thruster problem had knocked the Beaumont Hamel out of service on the Fogo Island run.
The Beaumont Hamel was replacing the usual vessel on the route, the Capt. Earl W. Winsor, which has been in refit for weeks.
The Nonia was called on to fill the gap. That now leaves Bell Island short a ferry.
Fogo Island and Change Islands residents spent Wednesday making the journey by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter.
One enterprising traveller, Vanessa Squires, told CBC News she would brave the journey by water, aboard a relative’s punt.
Questioned in legislature
Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce pressed Hedderson on the "state of turmoil" facing Bell Island and Fogo Island during question period in the legislature Wednesday.
Joyce charged that the new vessel construction program has "fallen off the rails."
Hedderson dismissed the concerns.
'Our vessel replacement strategy is moving along as expected.'—Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson
"Obviously, we as a government are on track, making sure that we are moving forward with the vessel replacement strategy as quickly as we possibly can," he said.
Hedderson later added: "Our vessel replacement strategy is moving along as expected."
But numerous press releases issued since 2006 and a review of statements by Hedderson’s predecessors paint a different story — one of delays in work being completed, and fewer vessels on the water than initially promised.
And the government's own financial statements show big bucks budgeted to build new ships, but just a fraction of the cash actually spent.
Building new ferries was a Tory election commitment in 2003, when the party returned to power.
The government commissioned a report on the ferry system, which was released in 2006.
Then-transportation minister John Hickey said the government would construct two ships in 2007, and put three more in service by 2011.
The Tories touted their vessel replacement strategy.
"This is real action, and real solutions and good public policy in action," Hickey said in October 2006.
He blamed previous Liberal administrations for the problem.
"Unfortunately, we’re playing with the cards we were dealt but, rest assured, we are taking an aggressive approach to build new vessels and provide the safest and most effective service we can."
But ultimately, none of those timelines for new ferry construction were met.
The first two were built, albeit years later than first expected. The Grace Sparkes and Hazel McIsaac went into service last spring.
The other three ships targeted for completion by 2011 are nowhere near hitting the water.
Today, there are eight ferries on the drawing board.
One of those — a third medium-sized ship, similar to the two already completed — is tied up in a dispute with the owners of the Marystown shipyard over costs, according to Hedderson.
The minister says the yard wants more money for the two completed vessels, and both sides need to agree on a figure to build the third.
"The other seven boats are proceeding as we had planned," Hedderson noted.
One of those is a large roll-on/roll-off vessel that will replace the Capt. Earl W. Winsor, which serves the Fogo Island run.
The Winsor is 40 years old.
The province selected a consultant to design that ship in August 2009.
In April 2011, the government noted in a budget press release that design work would finish and construction would begin on the replacement for the Winsor over the next 12 months.
But that didn’t happen.
Hedderson told the legislature Wednesday that the Winsor replacement is "currently at the last stages of design" and could go to tender in the early summer. That’s three years after the design consultant was chosen.
Six smaller ships
Then there are six smaller ferries in the works, which could be built by shipyards other than Marystown.
In June 2010, Hedderson announced that the province would seek consultants to design the ferries. The contract was awarded in January 2011, with work expected to wrap up in early spring 2012.
By June 2011, the deadline for design work had been pushed back to the summer of 2012, with construction to begin after.
Hedderson now says the work will be finished and ready for tender by November.
In a budget press release issued last week, the province says it plans to wrap up all design work and spend "$5 million to begin the process of constructing the replacement" for the Winsor.
There is no mention of any actual fabrication work beginning on the six small ships, or the medium-sized vessel that is subject of the ongoing dispute with Marystown.
The fiscal year runs until March 2013.
The Department of Transportation declined to answer questions e-mailed by CBC News asking for a detailed list of when construction work will begin for the various vessels, and when ships will actually hit the water.
The government has budgeted big bucks in recent years for ferry spending — and repeatedly trumpeted those amounts in press releases — but spent just a fraction of the cash.
In 2011-12, $39.3 million was allocated to build new ships. Just $5.7 million went out the door.
It was a similar story in the three previous years, when the province spent between one-third and less than half of the announced figure.
Before that, in 2007-08, the government expected to fork out $15 million, but spent less than $500,000.
This year the province is budgeting to outlay $10.4 million — a sharp drop from plans of past years.
All told, the government announced $190 million over the last six years for spending on new ferries. Just over $60 million was actually spent.
Most of that total — about $55 million — went to build the two vessels now in service.