It would be interesting to see the replies to the Request For Information (RFI) for long-term delivery of ferry service between Wood Islands, P.E.I. and Caribou, N.S. Based on recent developments, the response appears lukewarm, a disappointment for the P.E.I. government, provincial tourism, eastern commerce and most especially, Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay.
Three days after Christmas, Transport Canada quietly announced it was extending the operating contract for Northumberland Ferries Ltd. (NFL) for another two years - using existing ferries. Transport Canada indicated it would use that time to study the results of the RFI. It’s more likely that Ottawa will try and come up with an alternate plan.
The RFI was fast-tracked after the service was thrown into turmoil in 2016 when mechanical issues sidelined the Holiday Island for much of the summer tourism season and then the Confederation went for repairs. The general idea of the RFI was fine – a long-term, reliable approach for ferry service, perhaps for 20 years.
In a news conference last May, the federal government said it was looking at a new delivery model through high quality service with better vessels. Only this time, Ottawa wanted the company to provide those new vessels, without any mention of who was paying for them. Other key details were missing except that the RFI suggested putting more of the burden, costs and planning onto the operator.
It was apparent the NFL was cool to this new federal proposal. It seemed to like the present situation quite well – continue to lease two vessels supplied by Transport Canada, and use a federal subsidy to cover any operating losses and keep fares at a reasonable level.
It was unclear who else Ottawa had in mind as the future service provider even though Northumberland Ferries has operated the Caribou-Wood Islands crossing for 75 years. The media release stated that NFL would continue to operate the service in 2017 but if it wants to continue past that date, it will have to bid for it. Wow.
The NFL statement on Dec. 28 summed up Ottawa’s folly very well. “I am happy to share the news that Transport Canada has just advised us of their intent to seek extension of our existing Contribution Agreements,” said NFL president and CEO Mark MacDonald. “Our intention, of course, is to remain in this business for the next 75 years, as we have for the last 76.” Point well taken.
So we’re back to square one - no long-term deal and no new ferries. But at least the extension guarantees the essential service for two more years and the jobs of 150 people.
Mr. MacAulay admits the process will take longer than expected but remains confident the search is progressing. Others on the federal scene don't seem to share his vision or sense of urgency.
If Mr. MacAulay doesn’t re-offer in 2019, his cherished dream of a long-term NFL contract might not happen before his exit from federal politics. That would be a great disappointment for all concerned.
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