Tim Houston is ‘absolutely disappointed’ with the Yarmouth ferry

The question is what will he do with his — and our — disappointment?

The Yarmouth ferry docked on a hazy summer day.
The CAT, docked at Yarmouth in 2019. Photo: Suzanne Rent

I certainly am absolutely disappointed with the numbers. Nova Scotians have invested a significant amount in an operation over the last number of years and I think every Nova Scotian should be disappointed with the uptake on the service… I think everyone has always been hopeful that things will turn around. I haven’t seen that yet, but we’ll let the season finish out. We’ll look at the final numbers and make some decisions based on that.

Premier Tim Houston
September 8, 2022

Once Premier Houston does get a glance at the sure-to-still-be-disappointing final passenger numbers for this year’s Yarmouth — Bar Harbor ferry service after the last crossing on October 10, what decisions might he actually make?

The answer is not yet clear to me, even after Public Works Minister Kim Masland’s reply to a reporter’s question that same day about whether cancelling the government’s contract with Bay Ferries could be an option. “That would be a possibility, yes, absolutely,” she replied.

Tim Houston, it is fair to say, is no fan of the Yarmouth ferry. He has no reason to be.

It was, of course, the former Dexter NDP government that cancelled the subsidy in 2009 that had kept the foundering ferry afloat long past its best before date.

There were all sorts of big and little reasons for a precipitous decline in the number of ferry passengers in the lead-up to the cancellation — the improving Canadian dollar, the declining US economy, fear of travel in the aftermath of 9/11, greater global competition for the travelling dollar, the growing popularity of real cruise vacations — but the simple reality was still this, as a 2012 consultant’s report explained:

The decline of US overnight visitation via the Yarmouth gateway was so much steeper — down 74 per cent between 2002 and 2009 — than via either Amherst or Digby … despite ferry service still being in operation.”

The NDP’s decision to turn off the public taps was the right one fiscally, but it was a dud decision politically.

Before the 2013 election, with its own hopes for a second term tanking, the NDP panicked and announced its own plans to resume the service.

Too late. They were routed by Stephen McNeil’s Liberals.

The new government soon signed a new 10-year contract with different ferry operators, thus making future failures its own.

It is worth noting that Tim Houston — an accountant by training and then the Tory finance critic — called the McNeil deal “stupid” because the province was taking too much risk and Bay Ferries too little. “If you’re going to sign a deal like this, you’re going to sign it with an operator that has some skin in the game,” he said.

Though Bay Ferries slowly, painfully, pitiably increased the numbers of passengers it carried each summer to a titch over 50,000 in 2018 — its best pre-COVID year — the stark reality is that that was just over half the total number of passengers who’d come to Yarmouth by ferry in the peak year of 2002.

And then, of course, Bay Ferries shot us all in the foot, losing its entire 2019 sailing season, thanks to a badly botched decision to move its US terminus from Portland, Maine, to Bar Harbor before the new terminal was ready and government approved.

And then along came COVID, wiping out two more seasons.

Thanks to the contract the McNeil government had signed, however, Bay Ferries continued to receive millions of taxpayer dollars — wait for it — to not operate a ferry at all.

As opposition leader, Tim Houston led a successful court fight to force the government to release the terms of its management contract with Bay Ferries. Which made the deal the province had signed seem even worse.

Soon after he became premier, Houston called for a meeting with Bay Ferries “to see where their thoughts are and then kind of go from there… They’re owed that, Nova Scotians are owed that. We’ve invested a lot in this service. We haven’t seen the return to the taxpayers, but I really want to know, ‘What does the business plan look like right now as presented by the operator?’”

Whatever that business plan, the results have not been encouraging. The company’s latest projections — from September 1 — are that The Cat will carry 37,000-41,000 passengers this season. That is almost 10,000 fewer passengers than it carried during its last season in 2019, not to forget more than 50,000 fewer passengers than arrived in Yarmouth by ferry in 2002.

There are reasons. There are always reasons. Bay Ferries is attempting to restart service after a three-year break… Travellers are still nervous about COVID… Fuel prices are uncertain… The company lost six round trips because of weather cancellations… And… And…

The bottom line is that, while there may be reasons, the reality hasn’t changed.

Continuing the Yarmouth ferry doesn’t — and won’t — create a long-term sustainable future for Yarmouth and southwestern Nova Scotia.

The question now is what will Tim Houston do with that reality? Cancel the contract and absorb whatever penalties that follow? Use the threat of cancellation to renegotiate a more favourable deal with the current operator? Look for a different operator? A right-sized boat? Announce plans for yet another economic benefit analysis of the ferry service and blah blah, in order to push a final decision farther down the road, perhaps beyond the next election?

Or…

What will he really do? In many ways, Premier Houston is in an enviable position. He has ‘no skin’ in the Bay Ferries game. But he also knows no ferry will generate enough business to justify its costs.  Will he have the courage to finally pull the plug while pledging to invest even more in creating the sustainable economy the region deserves.

We shall see.

***

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

To read the latest column, please subscribe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.