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Cat ferry 2019 season start delayed: Bay Ferries


Federal support to the Cat Ferry is far too tepid, and affects its sustainability, writes John Sollows. - Tina Comeau
The Cat ferry in Yarmouth harbour - Tina Comeau

Delay attributed to terminal work happening in Bar Harbor

YARMOUTH, N.S. —

Bay Ferries Limited says "mid-summer" is anticipated as the earliest start-up time for The Cat ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine, although so far it's only identified the need to cancel and refund reservations prior to July 7 and it is showing that date as the startup for service on its reservation schedule.

The service was initially slated to begin June 21 – the first day of summer – although that date had only ever been a target. The delay is tied to the ongoing terminal work in Bar Harbor, which is The Cat’s new U.S. port.

“It is now anticipated that the earliest date on which any service could commence is in the mid-summer. All reservations prior to July 7, 2019, will be cancelled and passengers will be re-routed, subject to customer wishes, to MV Fundy Rose,” states a Bay Ferries June 7 media release. The Fundy Rose sails between Saint John, N.B. and Digby, N.S. “Progress will be continually assessed, and the company will communicate directly with its customers and the public once further parameters are known.”

Asked for further clarification about the anticipated start date, and whether there is there still a possibility that things could extend beyond the July 7 date in terms of the service not being available, Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said, "Yes, we do not anticipate that service will commence before mid-summer. But we are proceeding incrementally and will keep in communication with our customers."

"This is a complicated project, with many moving pieces, but everyone involved is working very hard to start the service as soon as we possibly can this year," he added. "As we feel we have better information, we will communicate with our customers."

In April, Bay Ferries had said that ticket sales for the upcoming season were tracking above the previous year. With a June 21 start there would have been 111 round trips this sailing season. The season is slated to run to Oct. 15. MacDonald says the October end date "continues to make the most sense based on usual travel patterns." However, he said, when asked if Bay Ferries would give consideration to a season extension, "We would keep an open mind on the issue."

Bay Ferries says a combination of reasons – “most significantly the complexity of the construction and approvals process associated with the renovation of the Bar Harbor ferry terminal” – has caused the delay.

“Other contributing factors include … the need to complete it in an accelerated time frame, US Government shutdown (December 2018/January 2019), delays in the terminal land transfer process, and various other factors,” Bay Ferries said. “All parties continue to work hard to expedite the processes and construction as much as circumstances allow.”

The company states there are three components to the construction program:

1. Marine-side work, which comprises various repairs and updates to the offshore marine infrastructure and movement of the ferry ramp from Portland to Bar Harbor.

2. Interior renovations to the existing ferry terminal building for use by passengers and US Customs and Border Protection.

3. Renovation to the exterior land-side facilities. This refers to rebuilding the exterior “Customs Plaza” section of the facility including booths, canopies, and various security and technical apparatus.

Bay Ferries says it’s the latter two components are where delays have occurred.

MacDonald admits that uncertainty is never good for any type of business. 

"We, and the Province of Nova Scotia, always considered 2019 to be a transitional year but we felt there was no choice but to make the Bar Harbor move in 2019. We knew this involved some uncertainty," he said. "Major stakeholders have been notified so they are aware of the delay. Most people recognize that delays are possible in projects of this magnitude and complexity. However, we are very concerned about all impacts on our partners and stakeholders."

The Nova Scotia government announced in March that $8.5 million (CDN) was the expected cost to renovate the ferry terminal in Bar Harbor. The cost is being footed by the province and Bay Ferries. That province had budgeted another $13.8 million to operate the service this year.

On the flip side the ferry generates much economic revenue. Tourism Nova Scotia’s 2017 exit survey data pointed to spending of around $2,400 to $2,600 per tourism party. Last year 50,185 people travelled on the ferry. Bay Ferries purchases all of its provisions for the service in Yarmouth and other parts of Nova Scotia.

In Yarmouth, people are employed at the terminal and onboard the ferry in such areas of stevedores, security, terminal staff, [email protected] food services, onboard tourism services and Customs Border Services Agency.

"We cannot speak to how this affects Customs personnel," MacDonald said. "Bay Ferries directly, or our contractors, employs approximately 40 people on the Yarmouth side (not including ship’s crew), many of whom are still required in the interim to ensure the service can start as soon as it possibly can."

The Cat ferry leaving Yarmouth for Maine during a previous season sailing. ERVIN OLSEN PHOTO
The Cat ferry leaving Yarmouth for Maine during a previous season sailing. ERVIN OLSEN PHOTO

While ferry traffic contributes to the provincial tourism picture as a whole, the impact of the season delay will be felt most in Yarmouth. The ferry overnights in Yarmouth and accommodations are booked by those arriving to Nova Scotia in the evenings and departing in the mornings. Tourism in the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association (YASTA) region saw a nine per cent increase in rooms sold in 2018 compared to 2017, for a total of 72,000 room nights. YASTA attributed that growth to The Lighthouse movie production last spring and The Cat ferry service.

“Bay Ferries and the Department of Transportation has made YASTA aware and kept us up to date,” YASTA executive director Neil MacKenzie said regarding the delay. “Bay Ferries is working with YASTA in the market to deal with the delay in the start date. This is unfortunate but something that is out YASTA’s control.”

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the delay will have a serious negative impact on many communities, businesses and workers in southwest Nova Scotia. “It is deeply disappointing that the Liberal government has extended so much public support to Bay Ferries without any apparent guarantees of the fulfilment of the service,” he said. “The premier needs to announce what penalties will be imposed under the contract, for Bay Ferries' failure to deliver a full season."

Bay Ferries has operated ferry service between Maine and Nova Scotia for 16 seasons but hasn’t sailed to Bar Harbor since 2009. It decided to move its operations to Bar Harbor (a port it used from 1997 to 2009) last year. The company wants to tap into the robust tourism market in Bar Harbor and bring down operational costs through a shorter crossing. The company says staying in Portland was not an option because a commitment was required there to construct entirely new border facilities.

In saying that, Bay Ferries had approached Portland after its lease with the city had expired this past winter to explore the possibility of remaining in Portland one more season. But the city had already committed the space used by Bay Ferries to other uses.

The Cat ferry docked on the Yarmouth waterfront. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The Cat ferry docked on the Yarmouth waterfront. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

In February, Bay Ferries signed a five-year lease with the town of Bar Harbor to use its ferry terminal facility. Bay Ferries also leases terminal facilities in Yarmouth.

“Bay Ferries Limited will communicate directly with all affected customers and deeply regrets any inconvenience caused to our customers and impacts on our partners and the hospitality industry,” its June 7 media release states.

Last year, 50,185 passengers were carried between Portland and Yarmouth on The Cat ferry. Bay Ferries has seen its passenger counts go up each year since returning to the route in 2016, when it transported 35,551 passengers. In 2017 The Cat carried 41,623 passengers, despite having to cancel 25 per cent of its crossings due to an engine issue.

The company had offered a 20 per cent discount in the spring to people who booked early for sailings on The Cat this year.

Nova Scotian residents also receive $100 (USD) off vehicle fares each way, and $55 (USD) off motorcycle fares each way throughout the season.

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