Officials consider MDI ferry terminal ownership, pier issues

Posted Sept. 20, 2011, at 11:12 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — It’s been nearly two years since regular ferry service has operated between Maine and Nova Scotia, but local officials are trying to make sure that if such service is restored, it has a place to take on and discharge passengers.

The local Town Council met in executive session at 11 p.m. Tuesday to discuss what competitive options the town may have in helping to assure that the Route 3 property remains a ferry terminal.

But the pier is in need of significant repairs, according to state officials. A Nov. 30, 2010, inspection by Maine Department of Transportation divers of the pilings under the pier indicates that it has been given a rating of four on a scale of one to nine, meaning that it is in “poor” shape.

Some of the concrete around the steel pilings is missing, leaving them exposed, according to a written summary of the inspection. Also, some of the piling flanges and timbers in parts of the structure that are more exposed to the ocean were deteriorated or completely missing, the summary indicates. Other pilings that support fenders and float systems at the terminal were found to be in “good” or “satisfactory” condition.

John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, said Monday that the pier will have to be repaired if ferry service is to resume at that site.

“[MDOT] went in and said ‘it’s not in very good condition,’” he said.

Henshaw said he was unaware of any cost estimates that may have been done for repairing the pier and added that he doubts any have been done. The owner of the 4.5-acre property, Newfoundland-based Marine Atlantic, seems more likely to sell the facility than to renovate it, he said.

“It doesn’t want to be in the real estate business,” Henshaw said of the Canadian company. “They want to dispose of the terminal in some way.”

Attempts Tuesday to contact Marine Atlantic were unsuccessful.

The pier has not had regular ferry service since 2009 when another Canadian firm, Bay Ferries Ltd., canceled operation of The Cat. Bay Ferries operated the high-speed catamaran car ferry between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth for 12 years, from 1998 through 2009, and for the last four of those years also made regular runs between Yarmouth and Portland. In Portland, the ferry docked at the city-owned Ocean Gateway terminal, which is where cruise ships tie up during stopovers.

Bay Ferries pulled the plug on the ferry service in December 2009 after the provincial government of Nova Scotia ended its annual subsidy of the service, which had risen to more than $5 million. The 320-foot Cat ferry, which sat tied up to the Bar Harbor pier for much of 2010, reportedly was sold last winter to a ferry operator in China.

Before Bay Ferries started operating the catamaran ferry, slower monohull ferries traveled in and out of Bar Harbor across the Gulf of Maine for more than 40 years.

Bay Ferries abruptly dropped its lease on the property last winter. At the time, Marine Atlantic spokeswoman Tara Laing said Marine Atlantic had no interest in operating a ferry between the two countries and was considering options such as selling the property or finding another tenant.

Marine Atlantic, which is wholly owned by the Canadian government, used to operate the monohull Bluenose ferry between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth and now operates two ferry routes between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

According to Henshaw, the state has been in talks with local and federal officials about how to preserve the property as an international ferry terminal. Whether some type of public ownership of the facility makes sense has been been part of those discussions, he said.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out, basically,” Henshaw said. “It’s a valuable asset.”

Town Councilor Paul Paradis has been leading the local effort to find a way to preserve the property’s use as an international ferry terminal. He said Monday that despite the financial difficulty Bay Ferries had in operating The Cat, ferry service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth has had a significant impact on the town’s tourism industry since it began in the 1950s. The town wants to do what it can to help revive it and to restore the economic impact it had.

“That is the town’s primary interest,” he said. “We all want to see a [local] place for a ferry to land.”

According to Paradis, preserving the terminal property for marine operations also could provide opportunities for future expansion of Bar Harbor’s cruise ship industry, which has been estimated to contribute roughly $15 million in direct cruise ship passenger spending to the Mount Desert Island area each summer and fall. Statewide, the cruise ship industry was estimated in 2009 to have contributed $35 million in direct spending in Maine’s economy.

The assessed value of the ferry terminal property, according to the town’s assessing database, is $6.6 million.

Paradis said Monday that he doesn’t know what kind of public ownership arrangement might be made.

“There are a bunch of different ownership scenarios,” Paradis said. “Your imagination could run wild with all those.”

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter @billtrotter.

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