Show me the money: South coast woman questions search for cheaper ferries

The provincial government is looking for a cheaper way to provide ferry services to seven communities on Newfoundland's south coast.

Elena Whyte of South East Bight asks where $1.8 million for her town's ferry is being spent

The Norcon Oceanus runs between Petite Forte and South East Bight in Placentia Bay, at a cost of $1.9 million a year. (Paula Gale/CBC)

The Department of Transportation and Works is looking for a cheaper way to provide ferry services to communities on Newfoundland's south coast, but at least one ferry user questions why the service is so expensive to begin with.

We all know that what's written on paper is not always what goes on the deck of a boat.- Elena Whyte

The department issued a request for proposals Thursday, in hopes of finding private shipping companies that could potentially offer ferry services to seven communities, with a total population of 700.

It's looking for a more cost-effective way to service La Poile, Francois, Grey River, Gaultois, McCallum, Rencontre East and South East Bight.

Expensive ferries

The current ferry contracts are with Puddister Trading Company and Norcon Marine Services. With fuel costs added in, the total cost of the ferries was $9.5 million in 2016-17.

Elena Whyte, the school principal in South East Bight, says she's astonished to learn that the local ferry requires $1.9 million annually. She said with fuel costing only $100,000, it's hard to understand where the other $1.8 million is going. (Paula Gale/CBC)

The department's breakdown of the numbers is not sitting well with Elena Whyte, school principal in South East Bight, Placentia Bay.

She has an accounting background, and wants to know what the $1.9 million for the MV Norcon Oceanus ferry is being used for.

As the vessel uses only $100,000 annually for fuel, she can't figure out where the rest of the money is going.

"In my opinion there's a lot of that money going into profit for private enterprise, and if that's the way it's going to be, then maybe government should look at building their own boats," she told the St. John's Morning Show.

"Maybe they should look at opening some of our shipyards that are closed and employing some of our tradespeople who are out of work right now, and building our own ferries that meet the needs of these small communities."

A view of South East Bight, population 78, from the deck of the Norcon Oceanus. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Whyte said crew on the Norcon Oceanus have been quite vocal with complaints about wages and working conditions and in some cases have even threatened to quit.

She says she thinks the numbers that the department provided were inflated and wants answers on where the cash is going.

"We all know that what's written on paper is not always what goes on the deck of a boat or the highways that we need repaired," she said.

Role of the community

With a Jan. 19 deadline for proposals, Whyte said there isn't much time to have proper consultations.

The Northern Seal, which runs from Bay L'Argent to Rencontre East and Pool's Cove, was the most expensive southern Newfoundland ferry last year, with a cost of $2.4 million. (Department of Transportation and Works)

She said if the provincial government is serious about saving money, it should sit down with members of the ferry users committee and any company that is awarded a contact to go over every cent and determine if it was spent properly.

"It has to be a three-way interaction," she said.

With files from St. John's Morning Show