UPDATED to include actual launch times: Tuesday, June 4, 7am

Photo: NorthWest Arm Boat Tours Facebook page

After a month of waiting with boat ready to go, a new ferry service across the Northwest Arm is set to begin service on Tuesday, June 4th, at 7am.

David Backman will be running his new 22-foot saltwater pontoon boat from the dock near the base of the Dingle Tower (facing the roundabout) northward across the Arm to a newly installed floating dock at the base of Jubilee Road.

The service will run every 15 minutes during peak morning and afternoon commute times, and carry up to 10 passengers at a cost of $4 per trip. For the first week, passage will be free, “in appreciation of all the support and patience from the community,” says Backman. There will be room for about four bikes per trip, mounted to the outside of the boat, so they won’t affect passenger count.

While it’s fair to call Backman’s operation a “ferry” service, it’s officially a small craft charter service, an extension of the business Backman already runs, Northwest Arm Boat Tours, which focuses on tourist services in the Arm and to McNab’s Island.

“We were more or less approached by the Spryfield Community Association because they knew that I already had tour boats in the area and they were wondering if I might want to start up a ferry service,” says Backman. “And I jumped right on that. It’s always been in the back of my mind. However, with the road closure it really gave us a unique opportunity to kind of jumpstart the whole thing.”

Since he announced the ferry plan back in April, Backman has been waiting for a place to dock at the base of Jubilee Road. There was delay getting the floating dock in the water this year as it was due for replacement. That work was completed by a contractor on Tuesday.

Backman figures the service needs about 50 return trips a day to pay for itself, which he feels is achievable. “I’ve been to some community meetings, I’ve talked to people on the street, spent some time on Facebook, just getting feedback from folks,” says Backman. “It sounds like we’re going to have no problem filling the boat during the peak hours, which is really great.” If it doesn’t work out, says Backman, he can simply put the new boat to work in his core business, taking day trippers to McNab’s Island.

“This isn’t so much a moneymaking venture for us as it is a good way to advertise our other businesses in the area, as well as extend some goodwill to the community by giving them an option to get on onto the peninsula that doesn’t involve their car so much,” he says.

Backman points out that a ferry service across the Northwest Arm is even mentioned in the city’s unanimously approved Integrated Mobility Plan, which calls for feasibility study into an alternative bicycle and pedestrian crossing of the Arm.

From Halifax’s Integrated Mobility Plan, approved December 2017.
From Halifax’s Integrated Mobility Plan, approved December 2017.

On the Dingle side, commuters would be expected to walk, ride or drive to the park before boarding the boat, as there is no transit service down into Sir Sandford Fleming Park, and the closest transit route is either along Herring Cove Road, about two kilometres away, or an infrequent service along Purcell’s Cove Road, just over one kilometre away . The wharf is in close proximity to a large parking lot, which is currently free all day. “Naturally, come the summer months that parking lot is going to get busy,” says Backman. “We would certainly encourage our users to carpool down to the parking lot or ride their bikes or walk if possible.”

On the peninsula side, ferry riders face a fairly steep uphill climb when they arrive at the base of Jubilee. It’s about 750 metres to Oxford Street, where people will be able to catch Halifax Transit’s Route 1 Spring Garden.

Historically, there were ferries across the Northwest Arm landing at various points. Backman had originally hoped the city would consider installing a floating dock at its Oakland Street wharf, which is straight across the arm from the Dingle Wharf, and very close to the Halifax Urban Greenway multipurpose trail, Dalhousie University, and the number 1 and 10 bus routes. The shorter distance across the arm would reduce the trip from roughly five minutes to less than one minute. The Oakland wharf is only accessible by a long staircase down to the water, and HRM no longer installs a floating dock at that location. A little farther north lies another water access point at the base of South Street, though that one has neither wharf nor floating dock.

The Dingle dock from South Street water access. Photo: Erica Butler.

Use of either Oakland Street or South Street would certainly require some buy-in from the city, which does not appear to forthcoming. Earlier this year council rejected the possibility of supporting a Northwest Arm ferry service during the Quinpool closure.

Back in January, in the midst of budget deliberations, Councillor Shawn Cleary asked council to request that city staff look into the costs and benefits of “providing or subsidizing a temporary pedestrian and cyclist ferry service from the Dingle Park public dock,” to coincide with the Quinpool Road closure.

Council defeated the motion on a vote of 10 to 7, without much debate. At the request of the mayor, CAO Jacques Dubé did chime in to say the idea was “inoperable”:

The issue of creating a ferry landing at that location, it is not operable. There [are] numerous considerations that would create numerous time delays, and costs associated with putting in permanent infrastructure there. So certainly not something that we could actually execute on.

In his follow up comments, Cleary pointed out that the Dingle wharf was perfectly useable, and in fact had recently been in use by services like the Harbour Water Taxi based out of King’s Wharf.

“The idea that this is inoperable is actually false,” said Cleary. “It is totally operable. We have service providers interested in doing it. We have infrastructure in place to do it. Those are actual non-issues. If you vote against it, don’t vote against it because of misinformation.”

The debate ended before anyone solved the fairly huge discrepancy in the facts as presented by Cleary and Dubé. (Never a good sign around a decision-making table.) It’s possible Dubé and some councillors were under the impression that Cleary was talking about a ferry service of the scale of Halifax Transit’s harbour operations, which of course he wasn’t, though that was never strictly outlined. It’s also possible that councillor personalities were at play, as a discussion of sidewalk clearing standards had just ended (another motion by Cleary that council defeated) during which the snark metre hit some pretty high levels. Or maybe the 10 council members who voted against it (Savage, Mancini, Streatch, Karsten, Nicoll, Austin, Mason, Smith, Whitman, and Craig) just thought boat service on the Northwest Arm during the Quinpool closure was not something the city should support.

And short of installing the floating docks that the ferry service will use, the city will not be offering support. I asked Backman if there might be any interoperability with Halifax Transit, perhaps a bundled ticket, but no. “I’ve made a few calls and the red tape and the bureaucracy is just something I didn’t want to put any time into,” says Backman.

“It’s completely independent of the city,” says Backman. “If the city should decide that this is a viable option for transportation and they wanted to take over the ferry and put in their own boat, we would support that 100 percent. We just believe in having the ferry resurrected. In the meantime we’re going to step in and provide that service to people where the city hasn’t.”

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  1. Having the ferry come in at the bottom of Jubilee is a desperate move, and will no doubt sink the business due to the unattractive long uphill walk or bike ride. The ferry should be coming in at the Oakland dock. I write that as someone who lives in the neighborhood, but would still welcome this. However there are other concerns – ferry traffic versus the pleasure traffic on the NW arm, i.e. pods of kayakers, paddles boards, sailing classes, sailing races, and swimmers, with a ferry regularly crossing through the most used part of the NW Arm.

  2. I’m curious what his qualifications are, does his insurance know about his new operation, does his insurance have enough liability to cover accidents and if he has enough life-saving equipment on board for his passenger numbers?

  3. At the Spryfield Community Association we did a ton of research into the question, “will this actually work?” The answers we came up with were encouraging, including a totally viable number of private vehicle trips which a ferry service could parasitize (something like 1400 at peak hours) coming from the area, thoroughly counted the parking available at the Dingle, and even did a few dry runs. Once you step foot on the Oakland Dock, you can be riding bus in seven minutes. With the buses and the greenway, the place is the natural fit for a ferry, and as Erica noted has 4x the passenger capacity of Jubilee or South St. Oakland dock is a huge piece of a convincing case for the viability of a pedestrian ferry service.

    After Parks and Rec told us they wouldn’t be installing a dock, we requested district capital funds from Shawn Cleary for the installation of a floating dock, which was (understandably) rejected because subsidizing David Backman’s private business interests, even though the SCA was pretty convinced that it’s basically an at-cost venture for him. Still, I sincerely hope that Parks can find the means to support this location for a ferry as it’s the best use of the city-owned right-of-way. They expropriated that spot from adjoining private estates back in the 1950s just to facilitate a ferry that had been there for years. It was seen then as a vital part of the city infrastructure and really deserves a continued existence as a viable and useful right-of-way that serves the broader community, not just the tiny enclave of homes that surround it. Personally speaking, for me it’s not entirely about the social justice of allowing broader community use of this dock. It’s also the fact that the 160k they spent on building some kick-ass stairs and brilliantly illuminating the place is so close to being that rare and coveted maguffin, the “wise use of taxpayer money.” For a 20-30k more, we could install a floating dock that would last 20 years and ensures that hundreds of people every week could be enjoying one of the best parts of Halifax. That’s the kind of tactile level of efficiency which is practically ASMR-tingly-feeling, seems like a pretty good deal to me.