A Halifax Transit ferry crosses the harbour on a sunny day in June 2021. It's heading for Dartmouth, and in the background you can see nearly the entire span of the Macdonald Bridge.
A Halifax Transit ferry crosses the harbour in June 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Councillors have voted in support of a staff-recommended electric ferry service from Bedford with new terminals in Mill Cove and Halifax, a $5 fare, and 20-minute frequency at an estimated cost of $215 million.

But whether it ever sets sail depends on funding from the other levels of government.

The plan came to council as part of the Rapid Transit Strategy (RTS), the municipality’s big plan for bus rapid transit, in 2020. The RTS included three new diesel-powered ferry routes from Mill Cove, Larry Uteck Boulevard, and Shannon Park.

Back then, the cost of the Mill Cove ferry service was estimated at $120 million, and the municipality used that figure to ask the federal and provincial governments to pitch in. HRM received funding to further study the idea, and when it looked closer, the price went way up.

The service, as originally conceived, would now cost $288 million, Patricia Hughes, Halifax Transit director of planning and customer engagement, wrote in a report to council on Thursday. While the original estimate was for diesel-powered ferries, staff are now looking at electric vessels.

“The cost escalation can partially be attributed to the zero-emission service, 2022 construction costs which have seen a steep increase over the last two years, and an increase in the project scope. Recent work has also determined that the 2020 cost estimates omitted some key costs such as mobilization, demobilization, pre-construction management, temporary facilities, demolition, and additional site preparation,” Hughes wrote.

“While there is a premium for a fully electric service, it is only estimated to account for approximately $35M over and above the initial capital costs of a conventional diesel service. The additional costs include a premium for electric vessels, charging and e-house infrastructure, and extra vessels to provide the recommended service frequency due to charging dwell time. There are, however, operating cost savings as the cost of the electric service is projected to be approximately 2.5 times lower than conventional diesel vessels.”

When HRM produced its initial estimate, it didn’t know exactly where the terminal would be located. It’s now chosen a property, the infill in Mill Cove.

A map with illustrations added shows an area on the water, with a ferry terminal noted in white, with a connecting roadway.
An overhead view of the planned Mill Cove ferry terminal property in Bedford. — Screenshot/HRM

“The current estimates reflect the terminal being located on undeveloped and currently inaccessible lands, and therefore project costs include the development of the site access and circulation, including an above grade access over the CN rail line,” Hughes wrote.

“The Phase 1 terminal package has advanced the level of detail for this component and have identified options for raising and grading the Mill Cove lands, above grade access, Park & Ride facilities, and road and active transportation facilities.”

The RTS envisioned a “modest terminal,” with 3,000 square feet of dedicated space. Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency and Halifax Public Libraries are interested in colocating in the space, so it’s now grown tenfold.

“Collectively, the program of the Mill Cove Ferry Terminal increased to a 30,000 square foot building, with six berths, an HRFE vessel berth, and a breakwater structure,” Hughes wrote.

The strategy also identified a need to replace the Halifax Ferry Terminal to add berths for the new routes.

“Additional marine infrastructure has been identified through the Phase 1 studies, partly due to provision of electric vessels. This included the increase from two to four new berths for future proofing, and the terminal building increased in size from 16,000 square feet to 28,000 square feet,” Hughes wrote.

“Reduced Case” comes in at $215 million

After arriving at the $288-million figure, municipal staff worked on two new scenarios to shave costs: a “Reduced Case” and a “Do-Minimum Case.”

The reduced case would see one fewer berth at both Mill Cove and Halifax terminals, smaller terminals, the loss of the HRFE berth in Mill Cove, and reduced access to the Mill Cove site. For instance, instead of two access ramps, there’d be one, and instead of full road and active transportation connections, “AT connections will be to the terminal only, not around the circumference of the site.” There would also be a surface lot for park and ride, rather than a multi-level parkade.

The do-minimum case would remove another berth from each terminal, providing no space for future expansion, and connections to the Mill Cove terminal would be unpaved, with a gravel park and ride lot. Rather than replacing the Halifax Terminal, HRM would renovate it, introducing sea-level rise and storm surge risks.

The reduced case cost estimate is $215 million, with the do-minimum cost estimated at $169 million.

The report also looked at possible fares for the service, with models around $4.25 cash fares (for an average fare of $2.84 incorporating tickets, passes and other discounted options) and $5 cash fares (for an average fare of $3.50).

Frequency would be 15 minutes at a $4.25 fare of 20 minutes at a $5 fare, with options to move to 12-minute frequency based on demand.

The do-minimum case looks best by the numbers, but “it introduces significant risks around climate change and sea level rise which could threaten this substantial investment at Halifax Ferry Terminal,” so Hughes recommended the Reduced Case at a $5 fare.

“At the present time, direction is required on the capital investment only, and a final decision on the fare value can be confirmed by Council as the service launch approaches,” Hughes wrote.

“This option balances cost savings with future proofing of service, climate change adaptations, and level of service to the public.”

The federal and provincial governments have already earmarked funding for the service, with the federal government paying 40%, the province 33% and HRM 27%. But that funding is based on the outdated $120 million figure.

“The Province of Nova Scotia previously earmarked approximately $40.3M to this project, and it is unlikely that the provincial contribution will increase to reflect the revised cost estimate. As such, it would account for approximately 19% of the project costs, rather than the full 33%,” Hughes wrote.

“The previously estimated municipal cost for capital/infrastructure for the Mill Cove Ferry Service Phase 2 project was $32.3M. The proposed alternative would see this contribution rise to approximately $57.3M, if all other funding agencies have the capacity to increase their portion, and $88.7M if the provincial portion does not increase proportionally.”

Sticker shock for councillors

Coun. Tim Outhit told council on Thursday he was shocked by the price tag, but he argued it’s money well spent.

“This is the beginning of a transformation of how we commute,” the Bedford-Wentworth councillor said.

Outhit argued the ferry is cheaper than rail, which HRM wouldn’t have controlled, and he said bus rapid transit wouldn’t work on the Bedford Highway.

“I am not for a minute going to tell anybody here that this isn’t a lot of money,” Outhit said. “But I am going to tell you that none of the other options we’ve looked at is any less expensive. And the status quo is not acceptable.

Coun. Waye Mason agreed, rattling off the cost of subways and light rail in other cities.

“Councillors in Ottawa would be like, ‘We just spent $2.1 billion expanding the LRT, really, this is a thing for you?” Mason said.

“We need to accept that if we’re gonna be three quarters of a million people in a couple of decades, we need to lay the foundation now with projects like this.”

While the report notes there are no land acquisition costs budgeted, Outhit doesn’t think HRM will have to pay, given the provincially-owned land is unserviced and inaccessible as is.

But Outhit said it’s not going to happen if the province won’t pay a significant share.

“I would only support it — even important as it is to me and my district initially, till it expands — unless we had a whole lot of support from the other levels of government,” Outhit said.

“If they come back to us and say, ‘Here’s $20 million from us and $10- or $20 million from us,’ well, folks, it’s dead.”

Council passed a motion to apply for funding from the federal government’s Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program based on the reduced case estimate of $215 million. The deadline for application is November 30.

Coun. Paul Russell was the sole no vote.

“One of the challenges is the sticker shock but that just tips the scales,” Russell said.

The Lower Sackville councillor argued the route wouldn’t be effective because it would duplicate transit service that already exists.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. Until they are able to charge the batteries with solar or wind it’s a pale shade of green. The power to charge until this happens is generated by fossil fuels. NSPC will just have another consumer. The green power should be installed to charge these batteries as part of the project NOW not years from now.

    1. These ferries won’t be seen (if ever) for years. By then we will theoretically be closer to our much ballyhooed low GHG power generation objectives and over the lifetimes of the ferries, we will be acquiring less and less of electricity to power the ferries from fossil sources.

      Right now we have 1 full time ferry, one peak hour ferry and lots of diesel buses.

      We can’t afford billions for a subway or light rail and a single line commuter rail service (as CN Freight allowed) from Windsor Junction made little sense IMHO.

      We do own the harbour, it doesn’t freeze and much of Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford, Burnside, Eastern Passage and environs abut it or are not far away and potentially serviced by feeder buses. If HRM is to gain more population we need to invest in the transit they are going to need now. It can take decades to get such large scale public works done.

      Yes, it’s expensive – all transit is. Look how long it took us to end dumping raw sewage in the harbour. Fixing that was pricey too. The cheaper alternative is to remain a city of diesel buses where many people continue to be forced to use their car because the transit doesn’t work for them.

    2. These ferries likely won’t run for at least another 6-8 years, optimistically. If so, by then greater than 80% of NS’ power will be generated by renewable resources or imported from Quebec and Newfoundland. Moreover, even with a grid still using carbon, electric ferries are many times more efficient than a diesel engine. So it still makes sense even if we were still burning coal.