N.S. government decides to release ridership info for Yarmouth-Maine ferry service

·3 min read
The Cat ferry, which carries travelers between Maine and Nova Scotia, is shown in this file photo from May near Yarmouth.  (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)
The Cat ferry, which carries travelers between Maine and Nova Scotia, is shown in this file photo from May near Yarmouth. (Brett Ruskin/CBC - image credit)

Public Works Minister Kim Masland is changing tack on what information is released about the ferry service between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine.

On Thursday, Masland told reporters it would not be until the end of the season in October that passenger counts for the service would be publicly released.

But in a statement Friday afternoon, Masland announced that her department would release passenger counts to date and that regular updates would continue.

The figures show the ferry has carried 2,888 passengers since launching the service four days a week on May 19 (1,661 arriving in Yarmouth; 1,227 leaving). There were also 1,323 vehicles (762 arriving in Yarmouth; 561 leaving) in what is considered shoulder season.

Last week, the service provider, Bay Ferries, announced that so far it's sold about 15,100 tickets for the season.

Company declined to provide figures: Masland

In Friday's statement, Masland said she decided to provide the figures to the public after her department asked Bay Ferries to post daily passenger counts on its website — and the company declined.

"Our government feels very strongly that Bay Ferries owes it to Nova Scotians to be fully transparent about how the service is performing," reads Masland's statement. "If Bay Ferries will not be fully transparent, we certainly will be."

Officials with Bay Ferries, however, say transparency is not an issue for them.

Bay Ferries offers different account

The company said in a news release issued shortly after Masland's statement on Friday that the first request from the government for passenger data was received at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday. Bay Ferries said it provided that information "several minutes later."

The company said it expressed concerns about posting daily information because the season has started earlier than it traditionally does and, at a time when it's trying to build interest, "didn't want early season data to be misinterpreted as indicative of overall prospects, given the amount of investment in the service."

Despite its concerns, the company says it told government officials that "if shorter term reporting on actual passenger and vehicle traffic is a priority, we will work with your department to develop a reporting structure which addresses this need in some reasonable fashion."

Masland told CBC News her department is determining how it will continue to share ridership information with the public.

An ongoing saga

The apparent dispute over releasing passenger counts is another chapter in the ongoing controversy about transparency with Bay Ferries and its contract with the provincial government.When they were in Opposition, the Tories pushed aggressively for transparency around the service, making it a hallmark issue.

Premier Tim Houston, while Opposition leader, successfully sued the government to get access to the annual management fee paid to Bay Ferries. The company said in 2021 it has been paid about $1.17 million a year to operate the high-speed ferry.

When the former Liberal government was not releasing ridership numbers, the Tories made an issue of that, too. A well-known local Tory volunteer in Yarmouth could be seen regularly counting cars as they rolled off the ferry and those numbers would later end up on Houston's twitter account.

In government, however, Masland and Houston struck a less combative tone on the ferry. They've said repeatedly that there is a contract in place, that they would abide by it and they hope the service will be as successful as possible.

Hope for a tourism bump

After a three-year hiatus, there are big hopes for what the service could mean to the tourism season in southwestern Nova Scotia and the rest of the province. The service did not operate for the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the year before that because the facilities at the new port of call in Bar Harbor were not ready.

The service begins daily crossings on June 23. Peak season, considered to be July and August, is when the majority of bookings historically happen. Crossings are reduced to six days a week in September and the season ends in early October.

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