When the Cat’s Away

Posted April 08, 2010, at 8:53 p.m.

With the Cat ferry out of service, Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, are facing their first season since 1956 without regular ocean transportation to and from Maine and Canada.

Travelers to and from Canada would often spend a day or two in Bar Harbor, eat a few restaurant meals and maybe do some shopping. Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, had no estimate of the loss of business but noted that traffic on the Cat had declined last year. Motel operators near the ferry terminal seem to be taking the loss in stride, looking forward to a busy tourist season as the national economy begins to improve.

But for southwestern Nova Scotia, the loss of the Cat is devastating. When Bay Ferries Ltd. announced in December that it was canceling the service indefinitely, a shock wave swept through Nova Scotia. About 120 ferry employees immediately lost their jobs and about 175 workers in downtown Yarmouth hotels faced likely layoffs.

Bay Ferries suspended service when the provincial government of Nova Scotia ended the subsidy it had been supplying in recent years. Bay Ferries, which took over the ferry service in 1997, operated for nine years without any government support. It received $1.25 million in Canadian subsidies in both 2006 and 2007. The company received $5.65 million in 2008. Its 2009 contract included up to $9 million to cover operational losses plus $3 million for transition costs in case of suspension of service.

Don Cormier, vice president of operations, said he did not think Bay Ferries or any other carrier could operate the Maine-Yarmouth service without subsidy. At its height, the ferry carried 100,000 to 150,000 people a year but by last summer that had dropped to fewer than 77,000. The Cat, introduced in 1996, carried little commercial traffic. The big trucks that used to go through Ellsworth to and from the old Bluenose terminal in Bar Harbor have had to take a longer route through St. John, New Brunswick, and across the Bay of Fundy to Digby, Nova Scotia.

A glimmer of hope is in sight. A South West Nova Scotia Transportation Study by a Canadian-based international infrastructure firm is due for publication this month. It promises a menu of options that “will best support the economic development aims of the region over the long term.”

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter in December called the Cat an unsustainable business and envisaged a service that could take trucks rather than one devoted to high-speed passenger service.

Ensuring paying customers — no matter what they drive — is key to any revival of ocean service between Maine and Canada.

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