Ever since the acrimonious split between the City of Portland and the owners of the cruise ship Scotia Prince that started in 2004, the ferry service to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia has had a difficult history. Now the Canadian government will no longer provide the $6 million subsidy (in Canadian dollars) that Bay Ferries Ltd. says it needs to keep its high-speed vessel, The CAT, operating for the 2010 season. Over the past two years, $18.9 million in government subsidies were needed to keep The CAT running.
Unless the Canadian government has a sudden change of heart, it looks like there will be no Maine to Nova Scotia ferry service for the foreseeable future.
When the next attempt at a Maine to Nova Scotia ferry is made, backers ought to consider Yarmouth Mayor Phil Mooney’s advice and switch to monohull vessel that can carry both freight and passengers.
The idea was first proposed in a long-range plan for the Port of Yarmouth released in March 2009. That plan called for a year-round, monohull ferry that would serve commercial truckers transporters cargo containers, fish or wood products. Is there enough demand for shipping cargo between Maine and Nova Scotia year-round? That would have to be investigated.
There has been ferry service between Portland and Yarmouth since 1970. Starting in 1997, Bay Ferries Ltd. operated The CAT from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth. In 2006, Bay Ferries started using The CAT between Portland and Yarmouth. When it was operating, The CAT carried 900 passengers and 240 vehicles from May to October. The cancellation costs the City of Portland as much as $100,000 a year in annual fees (revenue is tied to passenger counts) and means the loss of the city’s major customer for the Ocean Gateway terminal, which cost $20.5 million to build. And the City of Portland still has $280,000 annually in debt payments for Ocean Gateway.
Officials in Portland and Bar Harbor said the cancellation is a serious blow to the tourism business in each community.
In Nova Scotia, the town of Yarmouth will lose 190 jobs and $2.5 million in tourist dollars from the loss of The CAT, according to the Web site www.novanewsnow.com. Officials in Yarmouth claim that Nova Scotia could lose $34 million in tourism-related income.
Now it may be that there are just not enough tourists wanting to travel to Nova Scotia any more to make this ferry work. Passenger counts have gone from 150,000 in the 1990s to 76,000 in 2009. But it is clear that Yarmouth and Nova Scotia officials will continue to push for help from the Canadian government to restore this service. And the City of Portland, still paying for Ocean Gateway, obviously wants a paying customer to use this terminal. There is also a real possibility that other cities will use this hiatus in ferry service to seize it for themselves. There has been interest expressed to run a ferry service from Gloucester, Mass. or Portsmouth. N.H. to Nova Scotia, for example.
As Colin Woodard, a freelance writer and The Working Waterfront columnist, has written, the era of high-speed ferries may be over, due to fluctuations in fuel prices. When marine diesel spiked at over $4.50 a gallon, that fuel cost was obviously devastating to companies like Bay Ferries Ltd. But even with lower fuel costs, and another government subsidy, it just may not make sense anymore to operate a high-speed ferry in this region.
If this ferry is ever going to work again, it has to tap into revenue from freight carried on commercial trucks. It may be a lot of fun to take a ferry that can travel across the ocean at speeds over 50 mph, but that might no longer be financially practical.