PORTLAND — The third effort to provide ferry service from the city to Nova Scotia appears to be sailing away.
On Oct. 16, councilors in Bar Harbor unanimously approved authorizing Town Manager Cornell Knight to sign a lease with Atlantic Fleet Services for the Cat high-speed ferry to make Bar Harbor its Maine port of call.
Bay Ferries Ltd., which has a 10-year contract with the government of Nova Scotia, set up Atlantic Fleet Services to do business in America.
While speaking to Bar Harbor town councilors by phone Oct. 16, Bay Ferries Ltd. Chairman and CEO Mark MacDonald said he expects service to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to begin next June.
A five-year lease with two additional optional years has been proposed, but cannot be signed until Bar Harbor closes on a $3.5 million deal with the Maine Department of Transportation to buy a terminal on Eden Street.
Bar Harbor is expected to close the deal with the state on Nov. 30, and will take out a $3.5 million loan to pay the state against an eventual $4.1 million bond. Other bond details are still being worked out, making the loan necessary, town Finance Director Stan Harmon said Oct. 16.
Bay Ferries is sure enough of the sale and lease agreement that it is also ready to begin work on the terminal pier now, MacDonald said. The initial demolition work needed to eventually rebuild pilings and a fender structure where the Cat berths appears to have approval from the MDOT, and will be done at company expense.
The Cat’s departure does not come as a surprise to Portland city officials. In June, City Manager Jon Jennings asked councilors to delay the request for proposal process for redevelopment of the Portland Ocean Terminal building in order to see if the ferry would return in 2019.
The ferry berths at the International Marine Terminal, but requires the use of a surface lot area between the terminals to process, load and unload vehicles. If the lot is not needed, Jennings would like to see how it could fit into redevelopment plans.
“I think when (the ferry) first came back to Portland, it was a wonderful opportunity,” Jennings said Oct. 19. “But times change.”
The ferry was also intended to carry trucked goods between ports, but Jennings said the area may not be as well suited for truck traffic now.
The terminal areas have been well-suited for an expanding cruise ship business.
In 2009, there were 45 visits. By 2015, there were more than 80. This year, 119 visits were scheduled, with an expected 170,000 passengers aboard.
The Nova Star restored the ferry link between Portland and Yarmouth in 2014, but initial hopes of carrying 100,000 passengers annually were never achieved. In October 2015, the ship was arrested in port because of at least $800,000 in unpaid debts.
In 2016, the high-speed catamaran service began, cutting travel time to 5.5 hours. The reduced travel time did not boost ridership. City data reported 14,550 vehicles and 41,300 passengers for the 2017 season.
This year, there were 50,000 passengers and 18,650 vehicles. In 2017, the service generated $142,500 in revenues. This year, it increased to $200,000.
The provincial government of Nova Scotia has spent more than $70 million subsidizing ferry services, including paying Nova Star debts and $7 million for security upgrades required this year by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Portland.
The Cat is the second catamaran ferry serving Portland and Yarmouth. The first service ended in 2009, after replacing the Scotia Prince in 2005.
The Cat then shifted to Bar Harbor for one season in 2010.
The Cat approaches Portland on Aug. 17. The ferry service to Nova Scotia is expected to move to Bar Harbor in 2019.
The departure of the Cat ferry from Portland to Bar Harbor could allow the city to use the lot for redevelopment.