Province awards contract for CAT ferry study
Final report expected in the fall of 2024
“I’m really excited for the work that they’re going to be able to do.” Kim Masland Public works minister
The provincial government has awarded a $180,000 contract to the newly registered consulting firm 21FSP to carry out a broad economic study of the Nova Scotia to Maine international ferry service.
"This level of detail has never been gathered before on this service, and it will help us determine if the service is providing good value to Nova Scotian taxpayers,” said Public Works Minister Kim Masland.
The study will collect data over this year's and next year's sailing seasons. The ferry service, which sails between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor, resumed last year, after seeing two seasons canceled by COVID and another by construction at the terminal in
A final report is expected in fall 2024.
The province received 16 applications to its request for proposals for the study. Following an evaluation – examining action plans, qualifications and references – only two applicants qualified for final consideration, of which 21FSP was the lowest bidder.
The province is not releasing the full list of the 16 applicants, nor the overall range of the bids, saying that information is confidential.
Masland said they have full confidence in the selected company even though it's only been registered with Nova Scotia Joint Stocks since July 28. She said those involved with the company are reputable and forward-thinking.
“I'm really excited for the work that they're going to be able to do,” she said.
Given Premier Tim Houston's past criticisms and concerns with the ferry service, Masland was asked what she would say to people who may feel the study process is rigged.
“I wouldn't agree with that because for the first time, there is a government that is actually going to do a broad impact study that needed to be done," she said.
It'll take some convincing to relieve concerns Nova Scotia Liberal Leader, and Yarmouth MLA, Zach Churchill has.
“I'm really worried that the fix is in on this,” he said. “They just so happen to pick the one group that nobody's ever heard of … they wouldn't share any information on who the other bidders were. I'm very concerned – especially considering their history on this and how much that the premier has gone after (the service).”
The government contracts Bay Ferries to operate the service. Last year it spent $17.6 million to operate the service. Unlike other ferry services in the province that receive provincial and federal subsidies, this service only receives provincial funds.
As of Sept. 11 Bay Ferries had sold 38,655 tickets for passengers who will travel on The CAT during this season, which ends Oct. 9.
In terms of actual traffic, 33,520 passengers and 13,178 vehicles had been transported as of Sept. 11.
During the entirety of the 2022 season, 36,151 passengers were transported.
Now in the shoulder season, The CAT ferry is operating five days a week. Scheduling disruptions occurred last week due to Hurricane Lee. Prior to that Bay Ferries had completed 82 round trips with 11 round-trip cancellations due to weather.
Senior vice-president Mark Wilson said they're pleased with this year's performance, especially considering challenges faced – namely wildfires, unseasonable rain and major flooding in the province.
“This is a service that relies heavily on discretionary tourism travel. That's greatly affected by weather conditions," he said.
“Bay Ferries has been pleased with the continued performance of the vessel, of the terminals and the on-time performance, the reliability of the vessel, our safety record this season,” he said. "It appears our numbers continue to grow as we re-introduce the service. Bay Ferries has always stated it will take some time to rebuild those numbers.”
The government's contract with Bay Ferries ends in March 2026. Does that mean it's a given, regardless of the study, that the service will operate in 2025, Masland was asked.
“I don't have a crystal ball of what will happen in 2025, whether the ferry will sail or not,” she said, pointing to COVID as an example of how there are never guarantees.
“What I will say is we do have a contract with Bay
Ferry until 2026...This is a study that is going to look at the economic impact, which is going to be broad. It's going to be looking at people that are employed, the tax base, spinoffs to businesses. Again, I wish I had a crystal ball. I wish I could say I knew, but I don't.”
Continuous uncertainty year after year about the ferry service isn't helpful. It makes it difficult for tourism operators to plan ahead – even reluctant to do so – particularly in the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores region, which sees large benefits when the ferry service operates and lost business when it doesn't.
“We've got a vacant hotel still sitting on the Yarmouth waterfront. The owners aren't going to put more money into that until they know that the ferry is going to be secure. We're already losing out on big investments that we could have had and been supporting our economy over the last number of years,” said Churchill, saying the service has become too politicized.
He said through past tourism exit surveys about how much travelers spend it's known the service brings revenue into the province.
The service also employs Nova Scotians on the ship and at the Yarmouth terminal and all of its provisions are purchased in the province.
Churchill questions why out of all of the millions of taxpayer money that the government spends, “this is the one issue that they pretend to be fiscal conservatives on. I'm worried that this process isn't going to be fair.”
Masland says otherwise. “This study is not just going to focus on what the service delivers to southwest Nova, this is going to focus on what this delivers to us as a province,” she said, saying Nova Scotians deserve to know the government is responsibly spending taxpayer dollars.
“We need to make sure that they're getting the value for the dollars that are being spent.”