Ferry concerns

To the Editor:

The proposed return of the Cat ferry service from Yarmouth will not be our parents’ Bluenose Ferry. The Bluenose survived for 41 years with ample space for cars and semi-trailers. As both the TransCanada and Route 9 were improved, the ferry service became less of a timesaver and Marine Atlantic wisely decided that the demand was no longer there for its seasonal ferry service. Attempts to replace her have foundered.

Bay Ferries Limited (BFL) was able to operate the Cat from 1997 until 2009, the last three years with a subsidy from the Nova Scotia government. In 2009, a change in governments in Nova Scotia brought the subsidies to an end and BFL ended both its Bar Harbor route and its Portland route. Although Mark MacDonald, BFL’s CEO, had told the Islander that the governmental subsidies were only necessary to operate the Portland run, BFL cancelled both the Bar Harbor and Portland runs when the subsidies ended. If the Bar Harbor run was profitable, why did BFL not continue it?

In 2016, BFL resumed government-subsidized ferry service from Yarmouth to Portland. In 2016, (CTV News, 3/24/16) the Nova Scotia government announced a $32.7 million (Canadian) subsidy for the first two years of resumed operation. The business plan envisioned 60,000 passengers, based on the passengers carried by now bankrupt Nova Star Cruises in 2014 (59,000) and 2015 (51,000). In its two years of operations, Nova Star had received $39.5 million (Canadian) in government subsidies.

BFL’s Cat drew only 35,500 passengers in 2016 and 41,000 passengers in 2017, well under its business plan goal of 60,000. (Portland Press Herald, 11/21/17). In 2017, BFL had to cancel 28 of its 112 scheduled trips because of repeated engine failures on two of the four Cat engines. (Toronto Star, 6/13/18). In addition, failure of one of the four engines had led to crossing times being extended by an hour, from 5½ to 6½ hours. (Portland Press Herald, 8/2/17). The Nova Scotia government came to BFL’s rescue once more and spent $4.3 million (Canadian) this winter on an engine overhaul and increased it subsidy to $10.9 million (Canadian) for the current year. (Toronto Star, 6/13/18). Now the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs Service has told the city of Portland that it expects the city or one of its customers, such as BFL, to pay for a $7 million (American) customs building to handle international travelers such as Cat passengers arriving from Yarmouth. (Portland Press Herald, 3/15/18). BFL has offered nothing, but the Nova Scotia government has offered $1.5 million (American) to pay for screening devices. Mr. MacDonald was quoted in the 7/4/18 Halifax Chronicle Herald as saying that a Yarmouth to Bar Harbor ferry service will need a government subsidy “for the foreseeable future.”

Only after this legion of financial problems did BFL suddenly express interest in returning to Bar Harbor and abandoning its Portland service. Bar Harbor should be skeptical and extremely reluctant to become financially entangled with BFL. Do we want to do business with a company that has abandoned Bar Harbor once, is about to abandon Portland and wants to come to Bar Harbor a second time only after it faces potential costs in Portland it cannot afford? How many times must we be fooled before we learn the lesson of caution?

We should not be fooled by the offer to pay for a facilities upgrade to a maximum of $3.5 million. CES has estimated that it will cost $2.5 million to remove the pier, building and other infrastructure that BFL had leased from 1997-2009. The Islander quoted BFL’s CEO MacDonald in its May 31, 2018, edition as saying of its lease of the ferry terminal: “Whatever was required to properly run the ferry service, including improvements to the terminal, was our responsibility.” Bar Harbor must ask itself whether BFL met that responsibility in the 13 years it leased the terminal.

There are other questions we must ask as well. Would the $3.5 million-infrastructure investment really be of practical use as a multi-use marina once the five-year lease ended and BFL possibly abandoned Bar Harbor again or would it have to be removed just as the old infrastructure must be? BFL’s letter of June 19, 2018, suggests that its limited, five-year commitment would merely be “an important bridge to your long-term plans.” Would the security zone of 300 feet in all directions that the federal authorities impose on berthed ships carrying international passengers effectively preclude a multi-use marina and public launching ramp for a terminal that has limited shore frontage? Would federal authorities impose a larger security zone should another port suffer an act of terrorism? Will our uncertain trading relationship with Canada under the present administration adversely affect tourism levels?

We should not be fooled by the speculative promise of revenues from BFL. Last year it only managed to bring 41,000 passengers to Portland. A readier and larger source of revenue, as Bermello, Ajamil recommends at Page 47 of its 6/6/18 final report, would be to implement an infrastructure fee for cruise ship visitations of $2 per passenger. This would generate at least $450,000 in annual revenue to improve the property for tendered cruise ship passengers and build a transportation hub/marina that would enhance the beauty of our historic and natural waterfront. Parking fees from downtown parking meters could, as Bermello, Ajamil recommends, close any remaining funding gap.

We should be careful of doing business with BFL. It recently sued Portland to prevent any increase of the fee paid by ships for piloting services. (Portland Press Herald, 6/4/18). When it first ran the Cat in Bar Harbor, it was cited twice by our harbormaster in 1998 for creating dangerous wakes. Rather than pay the fines, it demanded a trial in the District Court which was delayed until Sept. 22, 1999. (Ellsworth American, July 1999). BFL lost that court battle with the town. The Cat collided with a scallop dragger in Yarmouth Harbor in September of 1998 in a crash that cost the dragger captain his life. Canada’s Transportation Safety Board concluded on Oct. 13, 2000, that both parties were at fault and noted that the Cat suffered only minor damage that in no way affected its seaworthiness. When the estate of the dead captain sued for his wrongful death, BFL counterclaimed for the minor damage to the Cat.

Bermello, Ajamil advised the town in its report of March 9, 2016, that ferry operations at the terminal are “a money loser.” We have paid the price of an abandoned ferry terminal with rotting pilings and a weed-choked parking lot the last time we welcomed BFL’s Cat to our waters. The “important bridge to your long-term plans” that BFL is offering Bar Harbor is a bridge to nowhere. I urge all concerned citizens to contact their councilors about this critical decision.

Arthur Greif

Bar Harbor


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