BAR HARBOR – Bar Harbor town council has agreed to consider a proposal from Bay Ferries that would see ferry service between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor instead of Portland.
Bay Ferries – which operated ferry service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth from 1997 to 2009 – says the start-up target is June 2019.
The Cat high-speed ferry sails between Yarmouth and Portland. Bay Ferries says it has a good relationship with the city but is exploring another option due to concerns over future available waterfront space in Portland due to development. A shorter crossing would also result in savings in fuel and crew expenses, bringing down operating costs.
A Bar Harbor council motion that was approved unanimously at a July 17 meeting calls on council “to appoint a negotiating team comprised of the town manager, the council chair and the town attorney, as needed, to facilitate council consideration of the Bay Ferries proposal.” A steering committee will be tasked to develop a timeline for the consideration, that will include a public forum, with a decision date no later than Oct. 2.
An early-October decision timeframe has been requested by Bay Ferries.
“We didn’t take lightly the decision to even raise the prospect of moving the business, but we did because we thought it might represent a mutual opportunity for ourselves and for the town,” said Mark MacDonald, president and CEO of Bay Ferries. “Once that prospect has been raised, it’s then important that we deal with the uncertainty as soon as possible and not to have a long period of uncertainty, which is very tough for the business.
“But having said all that, we’re not demanding anything of anybody,” he added. “We greatly valued being in Bar Harbor and would value the opportunity to be back, but only if it’s something that works for everybody.”
Bay Ferries has indicated that with the support of the province, it will provide an amount, anticipated at $3 million US, for land-side and marine-side facility improvements. However, the figure has not yet been firmly costed out. The Town of Bar Harbor has stated it doesn’t want to, nor expect to, cover any of this cost.
BAY FERRIES LOOKING TO HAVE SMALL SITE FOOTPRINT
The town recently voted to purchase the ferry terminal property from the Maine Department of Transportation. Bar Harbor residents have expressed a desire to see the property used for multi-purposes. MacDonald said Bay Ferries is mindful of this and is looking to use the least amount of space needed.
It is proposing that the ferry arrive mid-day, departing three hours later. It would still overnight in Yarmouth. This type of turnaround in Bar Harbor negates the need for separate queuing areas for vehicles waiting to board the ferry at the same time vehicles are coming off it to go through customs. The ship can also serve as a holding place for vehicles.
MacDonald said they will work with the town if more tweaking is needed.
Residents at the council meeting had many questions. It was asked why Bay Ferries is only proposing a five-year lease and what happens beyond that. MacDonald said they wanted to propose a term the company felt would be acceptable to the town, but with lease options afterwards. Bay Ferries has a contract with the Province of Nova Scotia to operate ferry service for 10 years. It is in Year 3 of that commitment and hopes ferry service will continue past the 10 years.
Residents questioned whether security exclusion zones would exist that would impact on other marina uses. MacDonald said that’s not something they’ve run into in areas where they provide ferry service. There were concerns over Bay Ferries possibly breaking its lease in the future. The company stopped operating ferry service after 2009 when the then N.S. NDP government discontinued the operating subsidy. MacDonald said the company is not one to break a lease. He noted even if it leaves Portland the lease arrangement there is year-to-year.
Other residents expressed concern over losing space that could be used for other things. Some said the process is being rushed.
“I understand we have a good-faith offer or exploration here, but we seem to be really rushing to judgment to accept it and not considering all of the alternatives,” said a resident. “I would just ask, could the council back up, hold off a little bit and do it right.”
There was also the question of whether an RFP should be going out.
Steve Pagels of Downeast Windjammer Cruises, which has four ferry operations on the coast of Maine, questioned council’s process. His business sent a letter to council a year ago expressing an interest in international ferry service.
“We didn’t realize that you were accepting finite proposals at this time. I wouldn’t have assumed that, given that you just bought the property,” he said. “You obviously have a very viable option that’s been put before you. We would like the opportunity to do the same.”
There was no immediate discussion by council when this point was raised.
MORE WORK, DISCUSSIONS NEEDED
Bay Ferries notes one of the discussions it needs to have moving forward is with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to see what the terminal facility expectations would be and whether it is affordable or cost-prohibitive. Following the last sailing season, the province and Bay Ferries paid to have updated border security equipment installed in Portland. The equipment, owned by the province, is said to be portable and MacDonald hopes it could be moved to Bar Harbor.
Bay Ferries says from 1997 to 2006 Bay Ferries operated the Bar Harbor-Yarmouth ferry service with no government subsidy and it invested $100 million of borrowed funds into the operation.
From 2006 to 2009 the province encouraged Bay Ferries to provide additional service from Portland using the same vessel for both ports, on alternating days, after the Scotia Prince stopped operating. This, said MacDonald, necessitated the introduction of a government subsidy, which grew in 2008 and 2009 due to an economic recession and higher fuel and operating costs from servicing two ports.
As Bay Ferries continues to re-build the Maine-Nova Scotia ferry service since taking it over two years ago, it is relying on a provincial operating subsidy, said this year to be $10.9 million.
MacDonald noted 77.4 per cent of respondents in a Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce survey of the business community said they supported ferry service. “We were very proud to be part of this community for many years and we hope to be so again,” he said.
Bar Harbor Council vice-chair Matthew Hochman said he would want to ensure cost overruns don’t end up on the shoulders of Bar Harbor taxpayers, that the Bay Ferries footprint on the site is as minimal as possible and that public access for harbour usage is ensured. But he also sees this as a great way to reinstitute ferry service, while also, through lease payments, providing revenue for the town over the next few years as it figures out how it will develop the site.
“This puts the site to use, gets some revenue generated while we’re working on getting our plans in order,” he said. “I think this could very easily be a win-win, but I think we need to tweak a few things so it works for everyone. But I’m actually very, very excited about this.”
Why Bar Harbor?
What Bay Ferries likes about the port:
• Maine-to-Nova Scotia ferry service first started operating here in 1956.
• The Bar Harbor/Yarmouth ferry service is approximately 106 nautical miles in distance, a distance manageable in a 3 to 3.5-hour crossing. (This compares to 186 nautical miles to Portland and a 5.5-hour crossing.)
• Opens a market to the 3.5 million people per year who visit Acadia National Park.
• A shorter route distance would result in reduced fuel consumption.
• Portland traffic seems to peak more on the weekends whereas Bar Harbor, in the past, was more consistent throughout the week.
• Based on historical patterns, traffic seems to weaken in the shoulder season in Portland and strengthen in Bar Harbor.