The cost of keep­ing boats afloat

The Southern Gazette - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 39 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected]­gram.com Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

There’s an old say­ing about the ex­penses in­volved in own­ing a ship — that a boat is a hole in the wa­ter into which you pour money.

Well, the gov­ern­ment of this prov­ince owns boats, and pours plenty of money.

Ev­ery month, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment pub­lishes a doc­u­ment about the things it buys with­out go­ing to ten­der — of­ten, be­cause a “press­ing emer­gency” means there’s not time to get bids, and other times, be­cause the equip­ment can only come from one sup­plier any­way.

The re­ports fea­ture ev­ery­thing from med­i­cal equip­ment to text­books, but al­most ev­ery month, they in­clude un­ex­pected emer­gency re­pairs to the pro­vin­cial ferry fleet.

For three months of this year, the gov­ern­ment needed $18,244 in en­gine parts for the nearly new MV Vet­eran, along with $11,790 in emer­gency en­gine oil for the same ves­sel and a fur­ther $11,000 in main en­gine parts. The MV Flan­ders needed $150,000 in un­ten­dered cor­ro­sion pro­tec­tion. The MV Beau­mont Hamel needed $22,000 to re­pair an en­gine man­i­fold leak and $46,800 in bow thruster re­pairs. The MV Gal­lipoli needed $19,500 in pumps and pip­ing, and the MV Sound of Is­lay needed $58,000 in gear box re­pairs. The MV Le­gion­naire needed $12,500 for par­tic­u­lar en­gine oil and lu­bri­cants that could only be pur­chased from a sin­gle sup­plier.

And this year’s been quiet: there have been months where the gov­ern­ment has re­ported six and even seven sets of emer­gency ves­sel re­pairs in a sin­gle 30-day pe­riod.

As well, those are only the un­ten­dered amounts; the MV Gal­lipoli is cur­rently un­der­go­ing what was sup­posed to be a $1.6-mil­lion re­fit in Clarenvill­e, a re­fit that the CBC re­ports has been ex­tended un­til April — an ex­tra four months — be­cause of un­ex­pected cor­ro­sion prob­lems. The fi­nal price is now un­der ne­go­ti­a­tion.

The MV Sound of Is­lay, al­ready al­most 50 years old, just fin­ished a $4.6-mil­lion re­fit to help it eke out an­other eight to 10 years on the wa­ter. (To give you an idea of just how old the Sound of Is­lay ac­tu­ally is, when the ves­sel was built in Scot­land in 1968, Pierre Trudeau was just be­com­ing Canada’s prime min­is­ter. The pro­vin­cial li­cence plate slo­gan that year? “New­found­land and Labrador — Canada’s Happy Prov­ince.”)

You can ar­gue about who ben­e­fits the most, eco­nom­i­cally, from the pro­vin­cial ferry fleet — whether it’s the iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties that de­pend on the ves­sels (and for whom as much as 95 per cent of the costs are car­ried by the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment), or the ship­yards and sup­pli­ers in this prov­ince that ben­e­fit from land­ing all of the ten­dered and un­ten­dered work on the oft-trou­ble­some fleet.

That’s be­cause any ship re­pair fa­cil­ity can bid to re­pair or re­fit the ferry ves­sels — but they can only ac­tu­ally win the con­tract if they hap­pen to have re­pair fa­cil­i­ties al­ready lo­cated on the is­land part of the prov­ince.

Ten­ders for ma­jor ferry re­pairs tra­di­tion­ally in­clude two cun­ning lit­tle clauses: “Due to op­er­a­tional re­stric­tions ves­sel is un­able to travel out­side of the ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters of the is­land por­tion of the prov­ince of New­found­land and Labrador,” and “Due to pro­vin­cial Oc­cu­pa­tional Health and Safety ju­ris­dic­tion, ves­sel is un­able to travel out­side of the prov­ince of New­found­land and Labrador.”

It makes the pro­vin­cial ferry sys­tem an an­chor client for the prov­ince’s ship­yards; work tends to be done ei­ther at the New­dock fa­cil­ity in St. John’s, or at Burry’s Ship­yard in Clarenvill­e. (It’s an in­ter­est­ing and handy way to keep gov­ern­ment spend­ing in­side the prov­ince, de­spite open gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment agree­ments.)

The prov­ince’s ferry op­er­a­tions are cur­rently a $91-mil­lion-a-year op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing ev­ery­thing from ferry re­pair costs to ter­mi­nals to crew­ing costs. About $7.7 mil­lion of that is re­cap­tured in the fares charged for the ser­vice.

The rest is shared across all of the tax­pay­ers in the prov­ince.

Boats break down and they cor­rode – it’s a fact of ma­rine life. Older boats usu­ally break down and cor­rode even more. Right now, though, the new $50-mil­lion MV Vet­eran is tied up in St. John’s, await­ing thruster re­pairs, where it’s been since late Oc­to­ber.

The only thing we re­ally know for cer­tain? As long as the prov­ince is in the ferry busi­ness the way it is, throw­ing money into those holes in the wa­ter will be a $1.7-mil­lion-a-week ex­pense.

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