Nova Scotia

Premier wants meeting with Yarmouth ferry operator

Premier Tim Houston told reporters this week he doesn't think The Cat's performance has been a success for the province to this point, but he wants to know more about Bay Ferries' outlook for the coming years. 

Tim Houston wants to understand the business plan, expectations for coming season

The Cat ferry has not sailed between Nova Scotia and Maine for the last three years. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Premier Tim Houston wants a meeting with the operators of the ferry that sails between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine, to get a sense of what to expect from the service.

On Thursday, Houston told reporters he doesn't think The Cat's performance has been a success for the province to this point, but he wants to know more about Bay Ferries' outlook for the coming years. 

"I'd like to see where their thoughts are and then kind of go from there," he said.

"They're owed that, Nova Scotians are owed that. We've invested a lot in this service. We haven't seen the return to the taxpayers, but I really want to know, 'What does the business plan look like right now as presented by the operator?'"

A sea of challenges

Houston was a vocal critic of the service through his years in opposition as the ferry struggled to boost ridership.

Those struggles were further complicated by mechanical challenges one year with the ship itself. In other years, there were difficulties securing consistent berthing schedules when it was docking in Portland, Maine.

In 2019, Bay Ferries shifted the port of call in the U.S. to Bar Harbor, but the ferry has yet to sail there. The terminal on the U.S. side wasn't ready in time to receive the ferry three seasons ago and, for the last two seasons, the COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled operations.

The province has poured tens of millions of dollars a year into the service as it tries to resurrect it following its cancellation by the former NDP government in 2009.

Houston said he wants to focus on things that will benefit Nova Scotia.

Need to see it sail

"That means discussions about making sure it's the right port [of call], making sure it's the right boat, making sure the schedule is appropriate," he said.

"So we'll have all those discussions as to how we can make sure that the arrangement that's being funded by the taxpayers of Nova Scotia works for Nova Scotians."

In an email, Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said he looks forward to laying out the company's proposed plans to the new government, including marketing activities and other efforts to boost awareness and interest in the route.

"Over the past year, we have executed several major technical projects on the vessel, completed annual drydocking and completed five-year technical certification. We are encouraged by what appears to have been an exceedingly busy tourism season in the Bar Harbor, Maine region in 2021."

Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill said it's important for people to understand that the ferry generates economic activity for all of the province when it is operating.

"The passengers that come off the ferry … tend to spend twice as much money as tourists who come in through other means," Churchill said.

Maintaining a schedule that sees the ferry leave Yarmouth in the morning and arrive back in the evening is important because of what it means to the local accommodations sector and to do that, a fast ferry is required, he said.

No concerns about working relationships

Churchill said he knows the service has struggled to take off, but he's hoping Houston will give it a chance to sail to its new port of call and evaluate that before making a decision about any potential changes.

"If it runs, that's when we have to evaluate how it's doing and project the economic impact based on that. If we get into more time of this thing not running, obviously, that becomes more and more of a challenge."

Churchill and Houston have clashed in the past on this issue, but Churchill said he has no concerns about the ability of the two to work together on the file.

Similarly, Houston said he's not worried about his ability to work with MacDonald.

While in opposition, Houston successfully sued the government to learn the management fee Bay Ferries receives to run The Cat. The former Liberal government refused to release the information following a recommendation from the province's information and privacy commissioner that it be made public.



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