Update on Yarmouth ferry coming soon: N.S. transportation minister
Service has cost Nova Scotia almost $20M this year but has not sailed
Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines says he expects to have an update on the delay-plagued Yarmouth-to-Maine ferry service within the next week — a service that has cost Nova Scotians almost $20 million even without any sailings this season.
Traditionally, the service stops operating in early October. This year, in what was supposed to be the first in a return to Bar Harbor after five years in Portland, there have been no sailings.
Hines said construction work at the terminal site in Maine continues.
"The land-side stuff, there's still things to do," he said Tuesday at Province House.
The minister said U.S. Customs and Border Protection continue to oversee security requirements at the Bar Harbor site.
Bay Ferries, the operator, was forced to cancel and delay bookings several times before ultimately suspending bookings this summer as construction efforts and approvals required from the American government took longer than anticipated.
Although there has been no service this season, there is still a substantial bill for the province.
The terminal upgrades and construction work in Bar Harbor is projected to cost about $8.5 million and Hines said he expects that amount to be on track. But the province is also looking at a subsidy for the company in the range of $11.4 million, a figure first reported by AllNovaScotia.com.
Tory Leader Tim Houston said that subsidy amount, which is in line with what the government has paid in previous years when the service has operated, suggests there aren't enough protections for the province in the contract with Bay Ferries.
"It's extremely frustrating and I just think of all those tourism operators around the province that are struggling this season," he said.
"They need to learn from this because obviously the contract that's in place didn't protect Nova Scotians and it's really let all of us down."
Finances to be made public
NDP Leader Gary Burrill criticized the way the government has handled the file this year.
"The time has long past when they ought to have simply acknowledge that the whole file had turned into an abject bomb out for them," said Burrill.
Like Houston, Burrill said there should be some kind of return owed to the province built into the contract with Bay Ferries.
But Premier Stephen McNeil said the problems this season have nothing to do with the contact with Bay Ferries and everything to do with delays related to the move to Bar Harbor.
"We continued to strive towards ensuring there was a season," he told reporters at Province House, adding that most of the costs associated with the subsidy are fixed.
"Obviously we had more complications associated with that and we're looking forward to a full season next year."
McNeil pointed to the fact that room nights sold in the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores tourism region are down 30 per cent this year as evidence of how important the ferry is to the area. He said he understands why people would be frustrated.
"We're frustrated by it."
Hines said there would be a full accounting and analysis of how much money went to the service and it would be made publicly available. He said he and the government continue to believe in the service and what it means for the tourism industry, particularly in southwest Nova Scotia.
"The instability that was introduced into that service, that had operated consecutively [and] consistently from 1955 until 2010, destabilized that entire section of the province, the economy down there, the tourism economy, and we are trying to bring some stability and some sustainability back into this service," he said.
Hines said analysis of the Bar Harbor location, and the fact the site used to be the service's port of call, leads the government to believe it can be successful in 2020.
Both he and the premier said the hope remains that the ship can make at least one crossing this year as a test run for next year, although it would be much later than desired.
"We were hoping that we'd get something in [by] Labour Day," said McNeil.
In an email, Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said the company is "considering all factors" as officials prepare an update on their plans.
"Obviously next year is the focus and our priority is the building of a sustainable long-term plan."