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ALAN HOLMAN: No Lawrence, no ferry?

The MV Confederation, left, and Holiday Island are shown at the Wood Islands, P.E.I. ferry terminal.
(Guardian File Photo)
The MV Confederation, left, and Holiday Island are shown at the Wood Islands, P.E.I. ferry terminal. (Guardian File Photo) - The Guardian

Liberals may campaign on promise to reduce or eliminate tolls on the Confederation Bridge

When a government has what’s perceived to be good news, the announcement is made, with a bit of fanfare, by a cabinet minister, or two.

That’s what happened on May 5, last year, when the government announced it has come up with a new program for funding the East Coast ferry services, including the Wood Island’s ferry.

On that day, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay made the announcement to a packed hall in Belfast, while the Minister of Transport Marc Garneau broke the news in Ottawa.

"I am very pleased that the Government of Canada is seeking to move towards long-term contracts to provide stability and certainty in the communities of eastern Prince Edward Island, which in turn will stimulate our economy,” Mr. MacAulay told the Belfast crowd.

At that time, the good news was the proposed program would provide long-term funding for the ferry service. Instead of the year-to-year contracts that have become commonplace, there was talk of a 20-year contract. But the kicker was, the operators would have to supply the ferries, instead of the government owning the boats, as they do now.

What the government proposed last spring was a call for expressions of interest from companies wishing to operate the ferries under this new system.

When a government has what’s perceived to be bad news, it’s done quietly, and there’s nary a politician to be found.

This is what happened on December 28, in the news dead-zone between Christmas and News Year’s. The CBC carried a story saying the government has extended the existing contracts until the spring 2020, for the three ferry operators on the east coast.

No fuss, no fanfare, no politicians.

Quoting a bureaucrat, the CBC reported that the status quo is being maintained to ensure more certainty during the transition to a new business model.

About a week after the CBC story ran, the Eastern Graphic caught up with Mr. MacAulay on the extension, “I have no new details except the search is progressing and we will have a long term contract.”

For Mr. MacAulay this delay must be a big disappointment. Supporting the Wood Islands ferry has been a major feature of his political career. Some people saw the spring announcement as the icing on the cake of that career that began 30 years ago with his election to Parliament on Nov. 21, 1988.

MacAulay is not expected to run again, and the two-year extension takes the ferry contract past the next election. If there are downsides to the new program they won’t be known until MacAulay is long gone.

And there could well be some serious question marks about the program and the Wood Island ferry service.

If the ferry company has to provide the boats, will they want to be paying for two boats and two crews, or would they be more inclined to run the service with just one ferry?

And the even larger question is, what happens if there is a reduction or the elimination of the tolls on the Confederation Bridge?

When the issue was first raised a couple of years ago by Senator Percy Downe, Mr. MacAulay had a pretty good idea of the answer.

“If the bridge was suddenly free, you wouldn’t see a car at the Wood Islands or Caribou ferry,” he said then. “Let’s be very clear, if you’re going to start making things free, you have to make other things free, and how far down the road do you go?”

Nobody is going to seriously campaign for a free ferry service at Wood Islands. However, with the federal government already paying for a new, toll-free, bridge in Montreal there’s a growing sense of injustice on the Island. Don’t be surprised to see the Liberals campaigning on a promise to either reduce or eliminate the tolls on the Confederation Bridge.

- Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: acholman@pei.eastlink.ca

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