Atlantic Transport News – October 2021

Welcome to the October edition of Atlantic Transport News!

Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this edition:

A NEW LIBERAL CHAMPION FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION?

Newly re-elected Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin says she’s really passionate about climate-friendly transportation, and isn’t shy about saying she’s like to be invited to join the Trudeau Cabinet. She told the Daily Gleaner recently she’d love to be minister of transport. PHOTO – John Chilibeck, Brunswick News

It’s most unusual after an election for MPs on the government side to comment on any hopes they might have for a cabinet post. Even those who may have good reason to anticipate a call from the PMO would normally be reluctant to talk about it to anyone – much less the media. But Jenica Atwin, who narrowly pulled off a second electoral victory in Fredericton after switching sides from the Green Party to the Liberals, has never been shy about speaking her mind. In an interview with the Daily Gleaner just days after tabulation of mail-in ballots confirmed her win, she made her aspirations abundantly clear.

When asked by journalist John Chilibeck, she did not hesitate. “I would love the post of status of women, or families and housing,” she said, adding that she has a lot of concerns about the environment and transportation, and her desire to upgrade Canada’s rail system is one reason she’d jump at the opportunity to be transport minister. Whether Ms. Atwin was promised a reward for switching her allegiance we may never know, but some political pundits are suggesting that just might be the case.

Significantly, she made it clear in the Gleaner interview that she hasn’t lost any of her enthusiasm for passenger rail – despite being silent on the subject since joining the Liberals. She said that she plans to take the train to Ottawa for her swearing in ceremony expected sometime in November, just as she did after being first elected in 2019. This time she thinks that instead of driving to Moncton to catch the train she may drive to Rivière-du-Loup to avoid the snail’s pace rail journey through northern New Brunswick, even though it will not get her to Parliament Hill any earlier, and would mean boarding in dead of night.

In any event, it would seem there may now be a strong and effective voice for sustainable transportation within the Atlantic Liberal caucus. Ms. Atwin says she’s really passionate about high-speed rail and electrifying bus fleets around the country. While it may be questionable whether high-speed rail would be practical in this thinly-populated region, a return to the much faster and more frequent schedules of 25 years ago would by itself represent significant progress.

“I think that’s the way we go after greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s the way we transform our cities to be more accessible to people,” she said. “I think it’s one we don’t (see as) having a big impact on the environment, but I absolutely know it does.”

-Ted Bartlett

NOVA SCOTIA SET TO COMPLETELY ABOLISH HIGHWAY TOLLS

The minister responsible for transportation in Nova Scotia’s new PC government has apparently been mandated to fast-track the complete abolition of tolls on the Cobequid Pass highway – a step well beyond what the previous Liberal government had promised to do if it was re-elected. PHOTO – cobequidpass.com

Nova Scotia’s only toll highway is apparently going to be free of charge to all users in the near future. The 45-kilometre Cobequid Pass section of Highway 104 between Oxford and Masstown has had a toll plaza since it was completed as a public-private partnership in 1997. Passenger autos are currently charged $4.00, while commercial and other vehicles pay based on the number of axles.

In this year’s provincial election campaign, the Liberals dusted off an earlier unfulfilled promise to grant free passage to passenger autos bearing Nova Scotia licence plates. But the victorious PC government of Premier Tim Houston is evidently planning to go much farther.

The mandate letter to Public Works Minister Kim Masland reads, in part “As Minister of Public Works, you will…remove the tolls on the Cobequid Pass, starting the process immediately.”

No definite timeline for actual closing and removal of the toll booths has been spelled out, but the announcement will undoubtedly come as good news for the commercial trucking industry, which has continually maintained that the Trans Canada Highway should be completely free to all users. It will not be so welcome to advocates for sustainable transportation, who hold the view that those who use the roads – and particularly vehicles that account for the major portion of maintenance costs – should pay a larger share than is currently collected through fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. 

NO IMMEDIATE EFFECTS ON TRANSPORTATION AS  4th COVID WAVE HITS REGION

Most transit agencies are now back to full occupancy, despite the uptick in COVID cases, but obligatory masking by all passengers is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

Public health authorities say it was not unexpected, but the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Atlantic Canada with a vengeance in September, and rising case numbers continued as the calendar turned into October. The rapidly growing active caseload in New Brunswick was particularly alarming, with the Province acting quickly to reinstate certain restrictions that had been lifted at the end of July. In a late-breaking development, a 14-day “circuit-breaker” set of restrictions has been imposed, effective at the start of the Thanksgiving weekend.

Also on the increase was the percentage of the region’s population that was fully vaccinated, which might help explain why there did not appear to be any immediate significant impact on the numbers of people using public transportation so far during this fourth wave. Despite its concerns, the NB government hasn’t imposed any occupancy limitations on public transit, and that decision came as a great relief to Greater Moncton’s Codiac Transpo.

“That would have been devastating for us, as we have shown a steady increase in our ridership numbers,” said operations manager Alex Grncarovski. He added that a slight decrease was noticed when the mask mandate was reintroduced, but it wasn’t really a serious concern. The effect of New Brunswick’s new round of restrictions announced on October 5 remains to be seen.

Essentially everywhere in the region, masking is compulsory for transit riders, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Intercity busing tells a similar story. A snapshot from Maritime Bus shows 380 tickets were sold on Friday, October 1 – down slightly from 420 a week earlier. Owner Mike Cassidy sees that as encouraging given the circumstances, but adds that there’s a long road to travel to get the company back to where it was pre-pandemic. On a typical Friday in the fall of 2019 the norm would be about 650 passengers. Again, the effect of Thanksgiving weekend restrictions. which apply to all of New Brunswick, are still an unknown. Mr. Cassidy says these are very challenging times for the bus business, but his strategy is to stay in the marketplace, because people still need to travel, and time-sensitive packages need to be delivered.

An early October departures board at St. John’s airport shows an increasing number of flights, but there’s still a long way to go on the runway to recovery. Masks of course are still required, and the terminal remains off-limits to non travellers. PHOTO – St. John’s Airport Authority

Meanwhile, air travel is also seeing the effects of the fourth wave. Janine Brown, director of business development for PAL Airlines, says they are certainly seeing the impact of the rising case numbers, and will continue to monitor demand. But for the time being, at least, there are no changes in the growing airline’s new services linking St. John’s and Deer Lake with Moncton, Fredericton and Ottawa.

At St. John’s International Airport, passenger numbers for August 2021 were three times what they were a year earlier, reaching an inbound and outbound total of 85,221. But that’s still a long way from the pre-pandemic level of 179,784 in August of 2019. Spokesperson Laura Thomas says they don’t yet have sufficient data to identify possible effects of the rising case numbers, but adds that COVID can change things on a dime and the airport is learning to adapt. 

“We still anticipate a peak in Christmas travel and are cautiously optimistic that air service will continue to recover,” she said. “We are working closely with our airline partners and airport stakeholders to navigate any and all challenges.”

CAMPOBELLO SEASONAL FERRY EXTENDED AGAIN, BUT NO LONG-TERM FIX IN SIGHT

The seasonal ferry that plies between Campobello and Deer Island will continue to run until at least the end of October, but island residents are still denied basic transportation access that is taken for granted by almost all other Canadian citizens. PHOTO – Justin Tinker

The 800 residents of New Brunswick’s Campobello Island are still no closer to a permanent solution for their long-term transportation challenges, despite an ongoing campaign that has drawn support from all corners of the political spectrum and attracted a fair share of national media attention. The island’s only year-round link to the rest of Canada involves using an international bridge to Lubec, Maine and two international border crossings – which have been effectively closed since the arrival of COVID-19.

The seasonal ferry to Deer Island NB continued to run during the past fall, winter and spring, and the provincial government is still footing the bill for extended operation until at least the end of October. But it remains a tenuous connection, by a vessel that was only designed for summer operating conditions, and the Province has made it pretty clear that this is just an interim measure that will end once the border reopens. The island will then once again be subject to the not-so-tender mercies of the US Homeland Security authorities – an obstacle which makes it a huge challenge for residents to access services other Canadians take for granted.

The federal and provincial governments don’t appear to be even discussing the issue, although it seems clear that this should be a shared responsibility. While the feds continue to look the other way, the Province is digging in its heels. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, NB Transportation Minister Jill Green showed scant sympathy for the islanders’ plight, insisting that they do have year-round transportation to the rest of Canada, even though it runs through another country.

“They actually have a linkage, they have a bridge,” Ms. Green told the newspaper. “The residents there have been very good at expressing their concerns … But I don’t have enough funds to take care of all things for all New Brunswickers, so I have to make some difficult decisions.”

Latest efforts in the campaign take the shape of a constitutional challenge, focused on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Sections 7-10 (regarding freedom of the person and protection against unreasonable search, seizure, forfeiture and arbitrary detention), in hopes that the federal government will provide year-round Canadian access as a response to these rights being routinely violated.

-with files from Justin Tinker

NL PROVINCIAL FERRY ACQUISITION PANNED BY AUDITOR GENERAL

The acquisition of the local ferries MV Veteran and MV Legionnaire was badly mismanaged by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, according to a report by the Province’s auditor-general. PHOTO – NL Government

The process of purchasing two new vessels for Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial ferry fleet has been handed a failing grade by Auditor General Denise Hanrahan. The audit began three years ago at the request of the Legislature’s public accounts committee, and was prompted not only by the acquisition of MV Veteran and MV Legionnaire, but by the two ships’ troubled performance record once they entered service beginning in 2015.

The just-released report blamed mismanagement by the Transportation department for “significant operational delays, service disruptions and substantial unplanned costs during the construction, operationalization and initial operations of the vessels.” The two ships were built in Romania, and the project cost taxpayers about $120 million, including terminal upgrades. They currently serve on the Bell Island and Fogo-Change Islands routes.

The report said there was a lack of proper oversight in both the construction of the two vessels, and the provision of appropriate docking facilities for their operation. It suggested too much reliance was placed on shipyard progress reports, rather than completing internal project management reviews. There were also problems identified with the adequacy of personnel training for the sophisticated new ships. The two ferries were out of service because of technical issues for a combined total of 607 days in their first three years, and equipment failures and vessel damages resulted in unplanned costs of about $4.2 million.

The report’s recommendations include the establishment of a project management process for all future fleet acquisitions, with attention paid to risk management, onsite supervision, document management and training. For its part, the department acknowledged that there were significant shortcomings in the project in question, but said that a new public procurement framework was already in place. The official response, included in the report, insisted it was “committed to continuous improvement in this area.”

Atlantic Transport News – April 2021

Welcome to the April edition of Atlantic Transport News!

Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this edition:

MARINE ATLANTIC RATE INCREASE CANCELLED FOR 2021

The 2021 Marine Atlantic ferry rate hike lasted just a few days. On April 5 the Crown corporation announced that the increases had been cancelled, and users who had paid the higher fares would receive a refund.

The campaign for lower rates on the Marine Atlantic ferry service linking the island of Newfoundland with the mainland has shown its first sign of success. Faced with pressure from various advocacy groups, Transport Canada appears to have backed down on its demands for 65% cost recovery – at least for 2021. After just five days under a new tariff that increased passenger fares on the seasonal Argentia ferry and freight transportation and handling charges on both its routes, the federal Crown corporation announced a price rollback to 2020 levels. Customers who had paid higher rates for completed or future travel are to receive refunds.

Transport Action Atlantic has been playing a leading role in advocating for lower ferry charges for several years, but the effort gained traction in recent weeks when Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador formally joined the cause. The issue also found its way to the floor of the House of Commons. During question period on March 9, MP Jack Harris (NDP-St. John’s East) asked the Prime Minister to reverse the latest round of increases. Although Transport Minister Omar Alghabra gave only a non-committal response, the message appears to have gotten through to the province’s six Liberal MPs. They reportedly pursued the matter with the minister, leading to the rollback directive.

TAA views the concession as winning just one battle in what may yet be a long war. It doesn’t change the reality that ferry rates have outstripped the cost-of-living index by a factor of three to one over the past two decades, and are not consistent with the intent of the Terms of Union under which Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. Neither is there any indication that Ottawa is backing away from its cost recovery demands in the long term.

ATLANTIC BUBBLE MAY RETURN THIS MONTH

There’s optimism that the Atlantic Bubble may return soon, but concern lingers about opening the region to the rest of Canada. PHOTO – NLTourism

Travel among the four Atlantic provinces without need for a two-week self-isolation may soon be a reality once again. In March, the four premiers agreed in principle to a tentative reopening on Monday, April 19. The date, however, is subject to change should new pandemic concerns emerge.

As of April 1, the total known active caseload in the region stood at 182 – 141 of which were in New Brunswick, where a significant outbreak had occurred in the Edmundston area in the province’s northwest corner near the Quebec border. Provincial authorities reacted quickly, imposing renewed restrictions aimed at containing the cluster and flattening the curve. Similar measures had been very successful in knocking down an alarming outbreak that had surfaced during February in eastern Newfoundland – one that was all the more critical because most cases were of the more contagious B117 variant. But New Brunswick’s chief medical officer Dr. Jennifer Russell cautions that the April 19 date is by no means a sure thing. Public health authorities will be monitoring the situation closely to ensure that it’s safe to reduce travel restrictions.

As April arrived, Newfoundland and Labrador was reporting only four active cases, while Nova Scotia had 24 and PEI 13. Overall, the prevalence of COVID-19 on a per capita basis in Atlantic Canada is currently far lower than in other areas of Canada. The case count at the beginning of April was just 7.5 per 100,000 population, at a time when vaccine rollout was rapidly gaining momentum.

Theo Moudakis – Toronto Star

AIRLINE SERVICE SHOWS SIGNS OF RECOVERY

Deserted for now, but ready to go when service resumes: Fredericton airport has just completed a substantial terminal modernization and expansion project, ahead of schedule and under budget.

With the arrival of spring and the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines, Canada’s airlines are taking some cautious first steps toward restoration of regional services that were either greatly reduced or suspended entirely at the height of the pandemic. Not surprisingly, it won’t happen all at once, and ongoing travel restrictions between the Atlantic provinces and the rest of the country are expected to be a determining factor.

WestJet was first off the mark with an announcement on March 24 that services would be restored to Moncton, Charlottetown, Fredericton, and Sydney between June 24th and 30th.  The suspended service between St. John’s and Halifax that had not been planned to resume until late June will instead return with six flights a week effective May 6. WestJet’s direct daily St. John’s-Toronto route will be back as of June 24. Seasonal services to Deer Lake and Gander will also be restored at the end of June.

“We committed to return to the communities we left, as a result of the pandemic, and we will be restoring flights to these regions in the coming months, of our own volition,” said airline CEO Ed Sims. “These communities have been a crucial factor in our success over our 25 years and it is critical for us to ensure they have access to affordable air service and domestic connectivity to drive their economic recovery.” 

Meanwhile, Air Canada is preparing to resume some of its cancelled routes in the region as well.  The acting CEO of Saint John airport, Greg Hierlihy, told CBC News they are gearing up for a restart of services to Toronto and Montreal in early June, but he acknowledged that it’s a bit of a moving target, one that is somewhat dependent on loosening restrictions on visitors to New Brunswick from other provinces to the west. He’s also optimistic about an eventual return of Porter Airlines, which has been in complete hibernation since March of 2020. Discounter Flair Airlines is planning to begin service from Saint John in June. Flair also has plans for four routes out of Halifax this summer.

PAL Airlines is anticipating stepping up its St. John’s-Deer Lake-Moncton frequency to three times weekly when the Atlantic Bubble reopens.

MEANWHILE, ON THE GROUND…

The trans-island DRL Coachlines service in Newfoundland resumed its daily operation between St. John’s and Port aux Basques on March 8, following a three-week total shutdown due to the sudden COVID-19 surge in the northeast Avalon, where a high proportion of its traffic originates. Maritime Bus is continuing to run just four days a week, but is anticipating a daily-except-Saturday operation once the Atlantic Bubble reopens.

It’s now been more than a year since VIA Rail abruptly ceased all service east of Quebec City. As of early April, reservations for both economy and sleeper space are still being accepted online for tri-weekly departures from May 16, but the likelihood of service resuming while travel restrictions remain in effect between Quebec and New Brunswick remains a big question mark.

SUBSIDY PRESERVES CAPE BRETON RAILWAY FOR ANOTHER YEAR

Concrete barriers block a section of washed-out track in Cape Breton, but no trains are going to attempt to run here any time soon. (PHOTO – Tom Ayers, CBC)

On March 25 the Nova Scotia government announced another year of provincial subsidy to the Genesee and Wyoming owned Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway (CBNS) to keep the railway across Cape Breton island in place, an extension of an ongoing agreement that has ensured that the railway will refrain from proceeding with formal abandonment of the line. If there is ever to be a hope of restoring this rail line to active use, keeping it in place remains a critical interim solution.

A rehabilitated rail connection is undoubtedly critical to any potential major port development in Sydney, but many advocates are now saying the case of restoring rail service doesn’t need to hinge entirely on that project moving ahead. Existing customers could return, and a restored rail line could serve to attract other new business to the region. Other options, like building a container transload facility in Sydney to allow Newfoundland-bound truck traffic to stay on rail instead of being transloaded to trucks at Moncton, could provide rail-supporting business while also taking a toll off highways, and helping to reduce the carbon emissions associated with transport that’s already taking place across the province. The Scotia Rail Development Society has been leading a push for funding from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to support exactly this kind of development.

Newly elected Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Amanda McDougall has expressed support for the railway and its role in a greener transportation future for the region. In comments made to CBC News following the subsidy extension announcement, Mayor McDougall acknowledged that local businesses were making the case for the rail line regardless of whether the container terminal moving ahead, and spoke of the role a reinstated rail line could play in expanding the Cape Breton economy.

TRANSIT UNION MOUNTS ADVOCACY EFFORT

The Moncton local of the Amalgamated Transit Union is concerned that service reductions in municipal public transportation because of COVID-19 may result in what one spokesman refers to as a “death spiral” that presents an existential threat to transit. With municipal elections currently underway in New Brunswick,  Sheldon Phaneuf says it’s an opportunity for candidates to declare where they stand, while recognizing that both the provincial and federal governments have a vital funding role to play.

Mr. Phaneuf, who drives for Codiac Transpo, has launched a media campaign and has prepared an opinion piece, which calls on governments to act before it’s too late.

“If service cuts weren`t enough,” he writes, “the death spiral phenomenon is being further accelerated by passenger capacity restrictions, imposed by provincial health authorities in response to regional COVID-19 outbreaks. These restrictions are necessary to safeguard the health of passengers and transit workers, but the impact on transit systems already crippled by service cuts is overwhelming.”

The full text of his commentary can be found on the TAA website:

PETITCODIAC CROSSING CLOSURE BRINGS TRANSIT OPPORTUNITY

Final closure of the old causeway route between Moncton and Riverview took place on April 5. The new bridge structure at centre of this photo should be commissioned in October. Until then, major congestion is expected on the Gunningsville Bridge. PHOTO – Shane Fowler, CBC

It may be an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of public transit to the 20,000 residents of Riverview NB. The bedroom community across the Petitcodiac River from Moncton will have to live within the constraints of a single span linking them to the city for the next six months. The final decommissioning of the controversial causeway that opened in 1968 began on April 5, and involves the removal of the tidal gate structure and diversion of the channel to its original route beneath a largely-completed new bridge. However, there is a lot of remaining work, including construction of the bridge approaches, which required complete closure of the causeway. This means effectively doubling of the traffic demand on the 15-year-old Gunningsville Bridge – well in excess of what it was designed to handle.

Until the new bridge opens at the causeway site in October, the Gunningsville span is anticipated to be carrying more than 50,000 vehicles each day. It’s a recipe for traffic congestion that has concerned municipal authorities on both sides of the river for several years. Among the planned mitigation measures is a transit option, but the big question is whether enough residents of the traditionally car-centric community will avail of it to make a difference.

Alex Grncarovski, operations manager for Codiac Transpo, says the plan calls for a frequent express bus linking a park-and-ride lot in central Riverview directly with downtown Moncton, where convenient connections can be made to numerous routes throughout the metropolitan area. A supervisor will be assigned to the parking lot at peak periods to help facilitate traffic flow. The direct bus will approach the bridge using a limited access route with no turns and just one traffic light, so delays are anticipated to be much less severe than those in the more heavily populated areas of the town.

While users will pay standard transit fares, they will be spared the expense of downtown parking, as the park-and-ride lot will be free of charge.

The commissioning of the new bridge this fall is expected to complete the restoration of the river to its natural state, and return the famous tidal bore to its former glory. The construction of the causeway a half-century ago resulted in unintended environmental consequences, including massive silting of the channel and a serious effect on fish habitat.

CAMPOBELLO FERRY ISSUE MAY BE TESTED IN COURT

Once again the seasonal ferry linking Campobello Island with the rest of New Brunswick via Deer Island has been extended – this time until the end of May. The most recent announcement from the provincial transportation department says the vessel will then be withdrawn for maintenance prior to starting its usual summer schedule. The provincial government evidently has no enthusiasm for maintaining this service on a year-round basis, making it clear that the extension is simply a response to the COVID-19 crisis, to allow island residents access without having to drive through the US.

The campaign for a permanent year-round link may yet find its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Campobello Island Year-Round Ferry Committee has begun preliminary discussions with local partners and regional law firms to pursue legal challenges, claiming that access to and from one’s own country without undue search and forfeiture are protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In the late 20th Century, crossing the international bridge to Lubec Maine was quite a simple matter – but 9-11 changed all that. Subsequent tightened US border security, the requirement for passports, and annoyances such as the opening of Campobello-bound mail by US authorities have made life very difficult for islanders.

Campobello resident Ulysse Robichaud, a member of the ferry committee, told the Saint Croix Courier that they were encouraged by a virtual meeting with Premier Higgs last May, but the enthusiasm appears to have evaporated. Although both the PC MLA and the Conservative MP for the area are supportive of a year-round ferry to the rest of New Brunswick, there does not appear to be any momentum in either Fredericton or Ottawa.

Committee chair Justin Tinker says the Province of New Brunswick and the Government of Canada continue to ignore calls and e-mails from island leadership, who asking for nothing more than what has already been afforded to other remote locations: access to their own country.

REFOCUSING OUR PUBLICATION EFFORTS

With the introduction of our monthly online newsletter, we’re transitioning TAA’s biannual printed Bulletin to meet a slightly different communication objective.

Thank you for reading this, the sixth issue of our new monthly newsletter. Launched late last year, it’s an initiative designed to keep TAA members and other interested readers up to date with the latest transportation news from around our region. It also enables us to share Atlantic news more widely with interested people across the country, through a linkage with Transport Action Canada’s regular newsblast.

Over the past five years or so, we’ve made a special effort to add value to our printed twice-yearly Bulletin as an outlet for regional transportation news and opinion. While feedback has been generally positive, we’ve realized it’s an uphill, perhaps futile, struggle to make this publication a go-to source for breaking news. When a publication produced entirely by volunteers only appears twice a year, it’s a tall order to keep the content current and avoid the ever-present risk of being overtaken by events.

The latest Bulletin is behind schedule for a variety of reasons. It is at the printers as this is written, but members won’t receive their copies in the mail before mid-April. They’ll no doubt notice that some stories are already out of date. Hence the reason for a different approach. In November, we launched a monthly online newsletter, under the somewhat prosaic banner Atlantic Transport News. This collection of current transportation news from around the region seeks to fill a need that just isn’t possible with a biannual print publication. Our objective is to publish on (or shortly after) the first weekend of each month. Don’t hold us to that – this is, after all, a project of entirely volunteer effort! But all members and/or readers can help us with this, by contributing content, be it news tips, updates of happenings in your area, newsworthy photos, or complete short stories.

With this initiative comes a change in direction for the Bulletin. In the upcoming issue you’ll notice there’s less emphasis on news content, and more on in-depth features, analysis and opinion. In an era where the overwhelming majority of our membership and other followers enjoy access to the Internet, we think this approach makes sense, although we recognize that most members still appreciate receiving a hard copy in the mail twice a year – a tangible symbol of their membership they can hold in their hands and read at leisure.

Please, let us know what you think. You can reach us by e-mail at atlantic@transportaction.ca. Perhaps you might even have a suggestion for a more catchy name for this online publication, or some thoughts on how we can make the Bulletin a more appealing product and a more effective vehicle for promoting our agenda. But please don’t forget all this is an effort of volunteers – and we don’t have nearly enough of them. If you believe you have something to contribute, do not hesitate to step forward.  TAA needs you!

Atlantic Transport News – March 2021

Welcome to the March edition of Atlantic Transport News!

Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this edition:

COVID’S LATEST WAVE BRINGS MORE TRANSPORTATION CUTS

Graphic by James Fraser

Contrary to the verse of T.S. Eliot, most Atlantic Canadians would agree that February is undoubtedly the cruelest month of the year. The point was certainly driven home in 2021 as another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic rolled with a vengeance into Newfoundland and Labrador – and to a lesser extent Nova Scotia and PEI. Only New Brunswick finished the month with a significantly improved active case count from the end of January – and that was mainly because their peak had come earlier in the new year. The sudden surge in cases in Newfoundland’s northeast Avalon region was particularly alarming, not only because it proved to be largely of the more virulent B117 variant, but it was also showing rapid spread among the teenage cohort. Public health authorities acted quickly, and initially placed the entire province under strict lockdown, though the restrictions were later relaxed outside the most affected area. Nova Scotia, meanwhile, put the last remnant of the Atlantic Bubble on hold by requiring all travellers arriving from NL by air or ferry to self-isolate for 14 days.

DRL Coachlines suspended its cross island service in NL for three weeks because of the COVID surge in the St. John’s area, but has announced the schedule will resume on March 8th.

One casualty of the latest crisis in NL was the trans-island bus service operated by DRL Coachlines. On February 13 it suspended all service until further notice, temporarily laying off 28 employees. However, the company has just announced that its full schedule would resume on Monday, March 8, with strict health protocols in place including mandatory masking for the duration of the trip.

DRL had been operating at about 70 per cent of its normal ridership for the past year because of the pandemic, with the company taking a big financial hit, general manager Jason Roberts told CBC News. He said about 90% of the company’s ridership originated in or was destined for St. John’s, and ridership had all but evaporated under the latest lockdown. DRL has been bleeding cash since March of 2020, despite having shut down for several months last spring, and Mr. Roberts anticipates it will be another year before it’s again in a profitable position.

Air service in NL also took another hit, with WestJet announcing that the province was being dropped from its route map effective March 19 for at least three months. The airline had been operating a single Q400 return flight between St. John’s and Halifax on a less than daily frequency for several months. Airline CEO Ed Sims attributed the cancellation to plummeting demand because of travel restrictions and quarantines.

Meanwhile, PAL Airlines is now only operating once a week on its modified St. John’s-Deer Lake-Moncton-Wabush routing. Marketing director Janine Brown expects that this reduced offering will remain in effect until travel restrictions ease between provinces in the now-suspended Atlantic Bubble. Latest indications are that reopening the bubble is indeed on the premiers’ radar, and they will be discussing it next month with some optimism that it might be back by May. Meanwhile, PAL is maintaining a more frequent service between points within NL, flying with some regularity from St. John’s to Gander, Deer Lake, Goose Bay and St. Anthony.

GREENS CALL FOR NEW MARITIMES TRANSPORTATION VISION

“With public transportation services in disarray, it’s as if there is no one in charge – which there isn’t,” says New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon. The remark was part of a call for unified action by the three provincial governments in the Maritimes. In documenting his case, Mr. Coon decries the absence of a strong policy role among transportation departments in general, suggesting they are far too focused on asphalt and concrete.

NB Green Party Leader David Coon is promoting  the concept of an interprovincial authority to develop public transportation policy.

“To achieve our social, economic and environmental goals we must become more self-sufficient in public transportation.  How do we build a public transportation network that meets our needs, and what revenue will fund the necessary public investments?” he writes.

“This is a job for a public institution that crosses provincial borders.  I propose the creation of a Maritime Transportation Authority, a regional Crown corporation, that can quarterback the development of a public transportation network that enables us to travel where we need to go, when we need to go, throughout the Maritimes. 

“I envision a seamless system of regional passenger rail, motor coach, and local transit services that are a mix of private, public and community enterprises.”

The full text of Mr. Coon’s statement can be found on TAA’s website:

ATLANTIC AIRPORTS ASSOCIATION LOSES ITS LEADER

Saint John airport CEO Derrick Stanford is seeking a new challenge outside the aviation sector.

The CEO of the Saint John Airport and chair of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association is leaving to take up a new challenge. Derrick Stanford advised the YSJ board of directors of his departure in February, effective March 10. He’d held the position since 2016.

Mr. Stanford hasn’t indicated where he’s going, but suggested it would be outside the aviation sector. Before coming to Saint John he’d been employed in the software industry.

The departing CEO did express confidence in the viability of Saint John’s airport, which currently is completely devoid of any scheduled passenger flights. He noted that discount carrier Flair Airlines recently announced that it is set to begin service to Toronto as early as May, depending on the travel restriction situation.

The flights would be twice weekly initially, priced from about $80 one way. Mr. Stanford called this a step in the right direction, and predicted that YSJ has a bright future, despite the lack of clarity about a return of Air Canada service. He says things are beginning to look up for the aviation sector generally, with COVID-19 case numbers beginning to decline globally. He added that YSJ is on a “stable footing”, and the airline industry is taxiing toward steadier ground.

“I won’t say the worst is behind us, but we’re on a course now for a slow, steady recovery,” he told CBC News.

The total revenue loss for 2020 among ACAA members is estimated to be $140 million. The airports have asked for federal government help to keep the lights on while they await the end of the pandemic.

TWO NL PARTIES GIVE POSITION ON MARINE ATLANTIC RATES

The NL provincial election scheduled for February 13 was thrown into chaos by the surge in COVID cases. All in-person voting was cancelled, and those who had not already availed of advance polls were required to apply for mail-in ballots. The deadline for those ballots to be received by the returning office in order to be counted was set at March 12, with some sources suggesting that deadline could be extended, and it might be well into April before the election outcome is known.

Transport Action Atlantic had initiated an effort to get Marine Atlantic ferry rates on the table as an election issue. Although the service is a federal responsibility, TAA maintains the matter will only be addressed if provincial politicians become more assertive. PC Leader Ches Crosbie has committed in writing to do just that.

NL PC Leader Ches Crosbie has endorsed TAA’s position on Marine Atlantic ferry rates.

“Marine Atlantic is the responsibility of the federal government. But that does not mean I cannot stand up and hold them accountable. The federal government should ensure that Marine Atlantic provides affordable and reliable service…it is their constitutional responsibility to do so.

“…Yes, I do support the principle that the cost to use the ferry service between Port aux Basques and North Sydney should be comparable to the cost incurred to travel a similar distance via road. Additionally, regardless of the election result, I will support a full review of the existing Marine Atlantic rates to ensure that the federal government is compliant with the Terms of Union.”

A response from the provincial Liberals seems to indicate that they are not prepared to antagonize their federal counterparts, and suggests that they do not consider the current rate structure unreasonable:

“Through ongoing meetings and consultations as well as an ongoing open dialogue with the Government of Canada, we continue to make the case that ferry rates should be set so as to not have any negative impact on business, trade and tourism. We continue to be committed to that approach and will call for a rate review at every possible opportunity.”

The provincial NDP and the NL Alliance Party did not respond to TAA’s invitation.

YARMOUTH FERRY SECRETS REVEALED

While the ferry between Yarmouth and Main sits idle for another year thanks to the pandemic, new details have finally come to light regarding the amounts that the Nova Scotia provincial government has been paying Bay Ferries to operate the service. The provincial PC opposition has been pushing the McNeil government for several years to disclose the exact amounts involved in the management fee paid by the province, a demand that both the government and Bay Ferries claimed would risk damage to the company’s competitive position by revealing commercially sensitive information. The matter was ultimately decided by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, whose ruling in February made clear that these arguments didn’t hold water.

Roughly a week after the court ruling, Bay Ferries put any questions of potential appeals to bed by releasing the information to the public. According to the newly released information, the deal signed in 2018 sees Bay Ferries paid $97,500 a month, for a total of $1.17 million per year. This was adjusted upward from the original 2016 agreement, which only saw payments of $65,000 a month. The agreement also includes incentives that would allow the company to earn up to double the management fee in a given year based on the achievement of certain performance grades, though this has not yet happened. According to the release from Bay Ferries, the total management fee accounts for approximately 5% of all ferry operating costs in a typical year.

DIGBY FERRY ENDING A TWO-MONTH HIATUS

The ferry that normally runs between Digby and Saint John has been out of service since late January, forcing commercial truckers that form the backbone of Bay Ferries’ traffic at this time of year to take the long way round. MV Fundy Rose has been tied up in Halifax awaiting completion of terminal infrastructure upgrades. While it is not unusual for the service to be suspended while the vessel undergoes periodic refits, this is an exceptionally long outage period.  A Bay Ferries spokesperson noted that passenger ridership had been exceptionally low due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the absence of service was challenging for commercial users.  The Fundy Rose is now slated to resume operation with a 1600 departure from Digby on March 14.

CAMPOBELLO FERRY EXTENDED ONCE AGAIN

The Campobello ferry has been given yet another reprieve. The New Brunswick government announced on March 4 that the normally seasonal operation will continue until at least April 5, allowing residents to access to the rest of the province without having to travel through the US amid the pandemic.

Saint Croix MLA Kathy Bockus welcomed the announcement, but added she’d feel even better if the announcement was for a full-time ferry – a goal she indicated was still being worked on. The tug-and-barge ferry currently on the route is clearly unsuited for winter operating conditions, as evidenced by the large number of cancellations on the four days it is currently scheduled to operate each week.