HALIFAX — The future of the provincially subsidized ferry between Nova Scotia and Maine is under review due to lower-than-expected passenger numbers, government officials said Thursday.
Premier Tim Houston said he was “disappointed” with the latest passenger figures released earlier this week by Bay Ferries, operator of the high-speed ferry service between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine.
“Nova Scotians have invested a significant amount on that operation over the last number of years and I think every Nova Scotian should be disappointed in the uptake in the service,” Houston said following a cabinet meeting.
“I think everyone has always been hopeful that things would turn around. I haven’t seen that yet but we will let the season finish out; we will look at the final numbers and make some decisions based on that.”
The provincial operating subsidy for the current sailing season is $17 million.
On Tuesday, Bay Ferries said that as of Sept. 1, it had sold 35,056 passenger tickets and transported 28,349 passengers and 11,459 vehicles. The company said its figures for July and August represented 80 per cent of all traffic since the ferry service resumed on May 19 following a three-year hiatus due to COVID-19 and the construction of a terminal in Bar Harbor.
The previous Liberal government had set a target of 60,000 passengers per season, after the ferry service was established in 2016.
Public Works Minister Kim Masland said an option under consideration is the termination of the contract with Bay Ferries, which currently runs until 2026. “That could be a possibility, yes absolutely,” the minister told reporters.
“Many options are on the table and we will do the right thing to make sure Nova Scotians are getting the best value and the best service … from their dollars,” she said.
Bay Ferries issued a statement in its defence Thursday, pointing out that it is making progress in re-establishing ferry service. It mentioned a report from Statistics Canada that showed a 40 per cent drop in the number of U.S. vehicles entering Canada in 2022.
The company said that in 2018 -- its last full sailing season -- the ferry carried about 50,000 passengers. It said that it expects to carry 37,000 to 41,000 passengers by Oct. 10.
“Our monthly updates have spoken to the challenges we have seen in the market this year and what we believe to be the underlying causes,” the company said. “It is clear that rebuilding inbound U.S. tourism is a challenge which our entire country faces.”
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill, who represents the Yarmouth riding, said he’s concerned by the government’s stance on a service that generates tourism and other economic benefits in the province's southwest.
“The ferry to the U.S. is the driving force behind the tourism economy in southwestern Nova Scotia,” Churchill said. “A lot of people are going to be very concerned about the comments that were made today.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2022.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press