The curtain falls on this year’s ferry follies… but there’s always next year

Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines Hines had to sort-of admit his ferry universe hadn’t unfolded exactly as planned, or… well, at all. “We’re really disappointed on behalf of the operators that we haven’t been able to mount a season…” On behalf of the operators?! The operators are making out like bandits. What about the rest of us? Exactly.

So it’s finally, Thanksgiving-ly, over. For now. We hope. But don’t hold your breath. And do hold on to your wallet. Tightly. “There will not be any commercial crossings in 2019,” Mark MacDonald, the CEO of Bay Ferries, emailed a CBC reporter Friday in response to his question about whether the Yarmouth-Bar Harbor ferry would actually sail, even once this season, even just one way, or maybe just out past the mouth of Yarmouth harbour for a quick spin around.

The CBC had to ask MacDonald because Lloyd I-know-nothing-what-was-the-question-who-are-you Hines, our minister of transportation and obfuscation, wouldn’t or couldn’t answer.

During a post-cabinet scrum with reporters Thursday, Hines — who’d promised just the week before to deliver an update on the status of this year’s ferry sailing season within the week — would only say, “We’re really not ruling anything out when it comes to our commitment to this service.”

Hence the email to MacDonald.

But even Hines had to sort-of admit his ferry universe hadn’t unfolded exactly as planned, or… well, at all.

“We’re really disappointed on behalf of the operators that we haven’t been able to mount a season…”

On behalf of the operators?!

The operators are making out like bandits.

What about the rest of us?

First, of course, there was that $8.5-million worth of our tax dollars the Government of Nova Scotia ponied up to US contractors last winter to renovate a US-owned ferry terminal so it would meet US customs and border patrol requirements in time for Bay Ferries to use it this summer tourist sailing season.

How’s that going? “There’s still things to do,” Hines confirmed to reporters earlier this month — 99 passenger-free days after the ferry’s sailing season didn’t begin as scheduled on June 21.

But that’s only the beginning of what nothing is costing us. There’s also the subsidy we have been paying, are paying and will be paying for the rest of our 10-year management contract with Bay Ferries, apparently even when the company is not operating the ferry or managing the service successfully.

How can that be? It’s in the contact. What’s the contract say? Can’t tell you, says the minister. It’s a secret like the recipe for Coca Cola. No, seriously. You can look it up.

So that’s another $11.4 million.

If you’re counting — and why would you want to — that’s $19.9 million this year alone. Let’s round that up to $20 million. And throw in the chump-change $30,000-consulting fee we paid to a former US ambassador to lobby on our behalf to speed things up, which didn’t appear to speed things up at all.

And don’t forget that this latest $20 million must now be added on to the $60 million we’ve already paid to keep the ferry afloat during its first four years.

So there’s that. And then, of course, on the flop side, there’s all those tourism dollars the government claims have been lost because the ferry didn’t run.

“It is clear this service generates economic success,” the Liberals had boasted in an upbeat, talking-points, “share-this-and-spread-the-word” post called “Ferry Facts,” which it released on April 1 (yes, April Fool’s Day) before the facts became the facts. “Towns and communities are bustling with tourists, keeping shops, restaurants, and inns busy,” the Liberals gushed prematurely.

Uh, how’s that gone this summer?

But there is perhaps good news ahead for Yarmouth, if bad news for the rest of us.

Last May, there was a ground-breaking ceremony at what was then the off-season, nobody-home-but-us-glad-handing-politicians’ Yarmouth International Ferry Terminal. The purpose of the event was to announce that CBCL Engineering had been chosen to oversee a major $9-million facelift at the terminal, the Nova Scotia entry-point for tourists arriving by ferry from the US — if and when there’s a ferry. The project was to be jointly financed by the federal, provincial and municipal governments.

This is a great day in Yarmouth,” proclaimed Mayor Pam Mood.

And it seemed it was. At the time, the Yarmouth-Bar Harbor ferry service was still scheduled to begin its 2019 sailing season in less than two months. “To not interrupt regular ferry service,” officials optimistically declared, “CBCL will concentrate [on] project planning during the operational season (spring and summer) with heavy construction activities taking place in the off-season (fall and winter). Major demolition and construction will begin this fall.”

On Sept. 30, CBCL dutifully announced it was preparing to call for bids for Phase 1, “a combination of demolition and construction projects.”

But here’s the rub. You knew it was coming, didn’t you? Recall that when the infrastructure project was first announced in May, the cost was pegged at $9 million. Between then and now, CBCL had redone the math, and $9 million “will not complete all of the required work originally outlined for Phase I.” CBCL’s new estimate is more than double the original: $20 million.

I know, I know. You could have guessed.

The alternatives — dropping cash out of helicopters, subsidizing American tourists to drive to southwestern Nova Scotia, a massive Chase-the- Ace, putting real money into diversifying the area’s economy, or maybe just pouring it into the North Atlantic — are looking better all the time.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner October 14, 2019.

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