Ferry negotiations in Portland will consider wider picture

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PORTLAND — The resumption of ferry service between the city and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, may begin June 15.

But a lease agreement with Bay Ferries Ltd. will have to take into account the city’s burgeoning cruise ship business and redevelopment of the eastern waterfront near Ocean Gateway Terminal, City Manager Jon Jennings said Monday.

“This has become the epicenter of economic growth in the city, so we have to balance everything going forward,” he said.

The government of Nova Scotia announced March 24 it has reached an agreement with Bay Ferries to operate The Cat, a catamaran built for civilian service in Hawaii that is now U.S. Navy surplus property.

Also on March 24, U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, announced the Navy had agreed to lease what is now the USNS Puerto Rico to Bay Ferries.

The final knot to be tied is an agreement with the city to replace the lease agreement with owners of the Nova Star, which operated between the city and Yarmouth in 2014 and 2015.

The government of Nova Scotia has committed at least $32.7 million in subsidies for the new Cat service, including $9 million to retrofit the ship.

This follows $39.5 million spent on the Nova Star, which failed to reach projected passenger levels of 100,000 per season. The Nova Scotia government terminated the Nova Star contract last October.

The ship was later ordered held in Portland Harbor by Judge John Rich of the U.S. District Court in Maine, as creditors sought more than $1 million in unpaid debts from its owners.

The Cat is the second iteration of catamaran service offered by Bay Ferries. The first Cat operated from 2006 to 2009, offering a high-speed replacement to the Scotia Prince, which had operated for about 30 years.

Jennings said a visit to Yarmouth last fall with city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell showed him how the Canadian city gets an economic boost from the ferry service.

Yet fitting the Cat into the eastern waterfront, especially as 38 cruise ship visits are scheduled from the beginning of August through the end of September, will be a challenge.

Nova Scotia officials expect The Cat to depart Portland daily at 2:30 p.m. for a 5 1/2-hour trip to Nova Scotia. Because of the demands on the terminal for arriving passengers and queuing vehicles, Jennings said the schedule could pose problems.

Aside from new signs and improved directions, Jennings said the city will not take an active role in promoting the ferry trips.

He also said that besides the possible conflicts with cruise ship schedules, the Cat would not be allowed to transport freight trucks in and out of Portland.

“We no longer believe the eastern waterfront is manageable for trailer truck traffic,” he said.

Nova Scotia Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan told the syndicated Canadian Press the subsidies are needed to make the ferry service successful.

“The financial risk is largely that of the province,” he said March 24. “This is the investment that’s required to make this operation stable.”

Both the cost and trucking ban have been criticized in the province.

Progressive Conservative Tim Houston told the Canadian Press the operators needed more financial involvement.

“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.

Nathan Blades of Sable Fish Packers of Shelburne, who also presides over the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association, told the Chronicle Herald of Halifax, Nova Scotia, that the trucking ban would hurt local businesses.

“That link has traditionally been considered a valuable one for the seafood industry, and getting fresh fish to U.S. markets is extremely important to securing that market. It’s a slap in the face to Nova Scotia business,” he said March 24.

In Portland, the first phase of development at the Portland Co., 58 Fore St., could begin next spring, and Jennings’s capital improvements budget allocates funding for design of Amethyst Park, an open space off Thames Street and near Ocean Gateway.

While he said he looks forward to successful ferry service, Jennings said there are variables to consider.

“That is lots of property that is used about two hours a day,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The catamaran that will provide ferry service from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, sits in Honolulu in 2007. City officials are now negotiating a lease for the Ocean Gateway Terminal with Bay Ferries Ltd.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • Ward

    It’s almost as if, after being burned by three failed efforts, the city is being judicious about the time and expense it invests in a fourth set of hopes and promises. I don’t know about this new city manager….