June 19, 2018
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Sailing down from Boston

Michael Dwyer | AP
Michael Dwyer | AP
The 320-foot-long high-speed ferry The Cat arrives in Boston Harbor in May 2006.

Wouldn’t it be great if we Mainers and our summer residents and tourists could take a boat between Bar Harbor and Boston, as in the old days, instead of fighting traffic on I-95 or squeezing into a bus or an airplane?

That was part of a strategic plan by the Maine Department of Transportation a dozen years ago. This “grand plan,” as some called it, looked toward high-speed passenger vessels that would connect Bar Harbor, Rockland, Boothbay Harbor and Portland, with Boston as a possible extension. That was in the time of the Cat, the catamaran that took the place of the old, slower Bluenose ferry and carried passengers, cars and trucks between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The Cat service ended in December 2009 after Nova Scotia halted its annual subsidy. The Cat now is said to be operating in China, and the Bar Harbor terminal stands empty.

The Canadian owner of the terminal, Marine Atlantic, wants to sell the 4.5-acre waterfront property soon, perhaps by the end of this year. Unless some marine use for the terminal can be found, chances are that the terminal will wind up as the site of another big Bar Harbor hotel and the vital waterfront access will be lost.

So state, town and business officials have ordered a $32,400 study on possible uses for the terminal. They hired the Miami-based firm Bermello Ajami & Partners Inc., which developed a cruise ship industry destination plan five years ago and thus knows the territory. The study should provide the basis for a proposal to Marine Atlantic.

The Boston plan is worth reviving and expanding, possibly to include freight and automotive transportation as well as passengers. The old plan called for a 120-foot high-speed catamaran passenger-only ferry, although a private operator might decide to carry cars.

As in the grand version, a new strategic plan should integrate ocean transportation into an intermodal system linking ferries, rail service, airports and bus lines. Boat travel may once again become part of the visiting tourists’ experience and offer Mainers and summer residents a variety of transportation services.

But such transportation services must focus on where the people are. The Bar Harbor to Yarmouth ferry failed because the market was too small. Providing ferry service from Boston to Maine makes much more sense.

Preserving the terminal site is an urgent concern of the Department of Transportation, which similarly holds onto most of the unused railroad rights of way, says John Melrose, who was transportation commissioner at the time of the old strategic plan. He observed that no one knows what the transportation needs will be 20 years from now.

This is a time to think big. It doesn’t have to be just a dream to imagine boarding a boat in Bar Harbor or Boston, eating a fine dinner, sleeping in a cozy stateroom, and departing at the other end after a hearty breakfast.

Dreams sometimes come true if they are based on reality, not just wishful thinking.

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