The Cat ferry expected to sail this season even if economic study isn't finished

The Cat ferry that carries passengers between Maine and Nova Scotia is shown in this file photo approaching Yarmouth.  (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)
The Cat ferry that carries passengers between Maine and Nova Scotia is shown in this file photo approaching Yarmouth. (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's public works minister says The Cat ferry will sail between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine, this year even if a planned economic impact analysis of the service isn't finished ahead of time.

"We expect the ferry to sail in 2023," Kim Masland told reporters following a cabinet meeting on Thursday.

The ferry is scheduled to begin its new season on May 25.

Masland announced plans for the study in October amid concerns about ridership numbers government officials called disappointing. She said she hoped to have a tender issued in the fall

But, on Thursday, the minister said a request for proposals is still being developed by staff in her department

"It has taken some time to make sure that we are getting this right," said Masland. "This is a study — a broad economic impact study — that has never been done before."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Masland said it's important the scope of the study is correct so the best possible information can be gathered about the service.

"I feel very confident we're getting close to that."

The aim of the study is to speak to a broad group of people to understand the benefits of the service "to make sure that taxpayers' dollars are receiving the value that they should," said Masland.

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill, who is also the MLA for Yarmouth, said the tourism industry needs to be at the centre of any economic analysis.

"That's where the big impact of that ferry is," Churchill said in an interview Friday.

He said whoever conducts the study needs to consider what the service does for the accommodations sector and small businesses, speak with municipal officials and get an accurate picture of what people arriving in Nova Scotia on the ferry spend while they're in the province.

CBC
CBC

Past studies have suggested ferry passengers spend more money while travelling than tourists who come via other modes of transportation, but there has yet to be the broad kind of analysis Masland has ordered.

Churchill said his concern is the government will only look at whether the ferry itself is able to make money. That's the wrong way to look at things, he said.

He said ferries are loss leaders and that governments spend money on them to stimulate other parts of the economy.

"We have over a dozen ferries in Nova Scotia," he said. "None of them make money."

The Cat completed its most recent season — the first after a three-year hiatus — having carried about 36,000 passengers and 15,000 vehicles.

While those numbers are similar to 2016, they're down from 2017 and 2018 and a far cry from the days when 80,000 passengers would use the ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine.

COVID-related struggles

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation 2021 and 2020 seasons, and the ferry did not sail in 2019 because the terminal in Bar Harbor was not ready in time following a move from the previous port of call in Portland, Maine.

Officials with Bay Ferries, the service operator, said the pandemic continued to have a lingering effect on people's willingness to travel last year even after the service was able to resume.

Last year, the province provided the ferry service a $17-million operating subsidy as part of the contract the Nova Scotia government has with Bay Ferries.

The cost of the ferry has been a bone of contention for the Progressive Conservatives dating back to when they were in opposition.

Premier Tim Houston, while leader of the opposition, successfully sued the former Liberal government when it would not release the management fee the province pays to Bay Ferries to operate the service.

Houston argued that it was a question of transparency and that the public deserves to know how the government spends its money.

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