The good news for need-to-always-be-even-more-shocked-and-yet-more-appalled columnists is that the Yarmouth ferry is the gift that keeps on giving.
The bad news for taxpayers is that it is also the ferry that keeps on taking.
I’ve been writing about the always-sinking-but-never-finally-sunk ferry service between Yarmouth and assorted ports in Maine since at least 2007.
“Ferry Bad Times in Yarmouth” read the cutesy September 16, 2007, headline in the Halifax Daily News. Passenger numbers that year had “plummeted by a whopping 33 per cent, and locals say the situation is the worst it’s been since the province began compiling statistics in 1990.”
Little did they know.
I’ve written about the ferry follies for three different daily news publications and one regional magazine, and through three provincial governments of different political hues and hopes. Not to forget various operators and varying vessels.
And yet The Cat — or whatever its name is this week — keeps coming back.
Last week came news that officials in Portland, Maine, had said no way to a request from Bay Ferries (the current money-losing operator of record) to renew its lease on a chunk of land in the city’s east end it had used for the last three years to line up cars and trucks for its ferry crossing to Nova Scotia.
But that, of course, isn’t the end of it. There is never an end to it.
Even as Bay Ferries asked for that just-in-case Portland extension, it was continuing to negotiate an alternative home with officials in Bar Harbor, 150 miles to the north. And last week, the town of Bar Harbor announced it had closed on a $3.5-million deal to buy a local ferry terminal owned by the Maine department of transportation. It will then lease part of said terminal to Bay Ferries for five years so it can operate a new and (possibly) improved service to and from Yarmouth.
Those negotiations — delayed by the US federal shutdown — are expected to be wrapped up this week, according to what the town’s manager told the Mount Desert Islander.
But — there’s always a but — the new Bar Harbor terminal will still need to be readied to welcome passengers. And that will mean more money — to install new docking and loading facilities, replace underground electricity, phone and cable lines, and, oh yes, meet current U.S. Customs and Border Patrol standards. And then pay for the agents to preside in the customs booths.
Haven’t we seen this movie before? In Portland? Right? Right.
So this will sound familiar too. The original estimate for the reno was $3-million, but as the newspaper reported, even Bay Ferries now “expects the costs to exceed the $3 million originally planned for the work.”
But there’s even more. And it gets — even more — worse.
Bay Ferries has written a letter to accompany the redevelopment application in which it says the province of Nova Scotia “will ultimately bear responsibility for the costs of readying the Bar Harbor facility for ferry service in accordance with the terms of our proposed lease.”
No biggie. Just put it on our tab. As always.
And, oh yes, officials in Bar Harbor now say it’s unlikely the 2019 Bar Harbor terminal will even be ready to begin operations in June as planned.
So how much is all this costing us, not only to spiffy up Bar Harbor’s ferry terminal but also in mismanagement fees and bonuses to Bay Ferries officials so they can continue to lose our money?
We thought you’d never ask.
Don’t ask. We can’t tell you.
Nova Scotia’s transportation department is refusing to release that information, despite a December report from the province’s privacy commissioner that concluded there was no good reason not to disclose it.
“The department does not intend to make further disclosures on this file,” deputy minister Paul LaFleche wrote to the commissioner, because there is “a legitimate public interest in protecting the confidential commercial information of third-party businesses” and because of the “economic interests of a public body.” Huh?
Canadian Press reports that LaFleche had suggested “the information the department does release on ridership targets, budget costs and actual final expenditures are better indicators of the performance of the highly subsidized ferry.”
When Brian Flinn, the veteran political reporter for allnovascotia.com, the subscription-based business news service, crunched Tourism Nova Scotian’s numbers, he found the McNeil government had ponied up $989.50 in subsidies for every tourist who landed in Yarmouth aboard a Bay ferry while the average ferry passenger spent just $920 in Nova Scotia.
Still, transportation minister Lloyd Hines says this is a “good investment,” and the government has no plans to cut and run (or hide its head in shame).
The columnist in me says thank you, Lloyd. The taxpayer in me says… well, even I can’t print that.
In as much as I would love to see the town of Yarmouth prosper from this enterprise, I don’t think it’s working that way and hasn’t been for a long time. One can board a ferry just up the road in Digby to Saint John (two Canadian ports) and drive on down the road to the U.S. No point in subsidizing two ferries for the same region.
The “net” cost of the ferry subsidy is actually worse than $70/passenger.
The calculation doesn’t take into account the amount of money flowing OUT from the province because of Nova Scotians spending money in Maine they would not have otherwise (thus the NET economic gain is even less than the loss of $70/ferry passenger).
Nor does it likely take into account the LOSSES for each passenger who would have come to Nova Scotia *anyways* without the money being spent on the ferry (so they would have spent the $920/person money here without the spending of the ferry monies). If those passengers were removed from the calculation, and I’ve read elsewhere that somewhere between 1/2 to 1/3 of passengers would have come to Nova Scotia anyways through other routes, then the subsidy per NEW “tourist” would be ~60 to 100% higher and the “loss” would be ~$900/tourist.
What matters to the coffers of the province — and the taxpayer — are the NET financial contributions, not the gross contributions. Most calculations about the ferry are about the gross financial contributions (and even those are negative).
The ferry subsidy is an economic travesty without question. My question, after the damage suffered by the NDP for its 2010 decision, will any political party commit to pulling the plug?
Why couldn’t a political party win *in the south shore* by repurposing the ferry money — the same dollar amount — towards a better economic development model? Have people so drank the ferry Kool-Aid that they’re incapable of seeing better uses for the same money?
But.. but… bu.. wha? said the unemployed Nova Scotia film industry technician.