Atlantic Transport News – July 2021

Welcome to the July edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

ELECTRIC FERRIES PLANNED FOR HRM

A look at the proposed new ferry routes under Halifax’s Rapid Transit Strategy. The first route from Mill Cove to downtown Halifax got a major boost in the past month, with funding from all levels of government to move the project ahead. GRAPHIC – Halifax Regional Municipality

Halifax Transit has received a major boost to one of their rapid transit plans, as all levels of government have stepped in with funding to move ahead with a plan to launch a fast, electrified ferry service from Bedford into downtown Halifax. Halifax Transit had announced the plan as part of their Rapid Transit Strategy, and in June the federal, provincial and municipal governments announced funding support to move the project toward becoming reality.

The full project, which will involve the construction of new ferry terminals, replacement of the downtown Halifax terminal, and the purchase of new vessels for the service, is estimated to cost $134.5 million. An initial $3.3 million study to plan and engineer the service will be supported by $1.1 million from the province of Nova Scotia, $1.3 million from the federal government, and another $917,000 from the Halifax Regional Municipality. This phase of the project is expected to be complete in 2022, with hopes that the ferry service will be able to launch in 2024.

In a separate announcement, the HRM announced a tender for design concepts for the rebuild of the downtown terminal and the design of the new Mill Cove terminal. The downtown terminal will need to be expanded significantly to accommodate the new electric vessels planned for the service, and the Mill Cove terminal will need to include bridges across the CN rail line.

A fast ferry service has been proposed a number of times over the years as a solution to traffic congestion on the Bedford Highway, and as a way to provide a more efficient public transit connection into the downtown core. When recent attempts at commuter rail fell through, the ferry service has again risen to the top as a viable option, promising travel times to downtown that can beat driving even at off-peak times, and far exceed anything that is possible by car or bus during peak rush hour. With the new addition of exploring an all-electric ferry, the service is even more attractive to multiple levels of government that are prioritizing a shift to clean, sustainable public transportation options. All being well, this will turn out to be the first step in an important expansion of Halifax’s transit network.

-Tim Hayman

ATLANTIC BUBBLE OFF TO A SHAKY START – AT LAST!

Traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see on the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst NS as protesters expressed their displeasure with more stringent provincial travel restrictions imposed just days before the 2021 version of the Atlantic Bubble was launched. This year there’s less consistency among the provincial governments, so travellers would be wise to check the rules in advance before attempting to cross provincial boundaries. PHOTO – RCMP on Twitter

It will be a bit different from last summer’s successful formula, but the 2021 version of the Atlantic Bubble is finally up and running. Postponed several times, the arrangement permits travel (with a few restrictions) among the four provinces, without the requirement to self-isolate. The four governments had evident difficulty in reaching a consensus, perhaps due in part to the presence of two new premiers in the mix this year. In any event, it did not come together without a rather public difference of opinion between the premiers and chief medical health officers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – one that resulted in a protest blockade of the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst that required RCMP intervention, and got the local MLA booted from the NS PC caucus over her apparent role in the illegal activity.

With the rapid acceleration of COVID inoculations throughout the region and a steep decline in active cases during June, the travel outlook is certainly looking brighter for the summer of 2021. As of July 1, Nova Scotia was reporting 51 cases, down from 369 a month earlier; New Brunswick had 24 compared to 142; NL had just five, a drop from 90; and PEI had only one, having gone for over three weeks during June without a single new case being reported. Nonetheless, visitors to the Island this year must apply online for a “PEI Pass” prior to arrival. That’s just one of many variations in the rules among the provinces, so travellers would be well-advised to check in advance before hitting the road to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

VIA RAIL PREPARES TO RESUME OCEAN SERVICE – BUT IT WON’T BE THE SAME

When the post-pandemic Ocean returns, among the missing amenities will be the iconic Park-series domed observation cars. Designed to operate in the forward-facing direction only, they can no longer be turned at Halifax. VIA hasn’t yet provided full details of future train consists, but we will soon find out when a train makes its way to Halifax for the service resumption. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

It’s been a long 17 months, but VIA Rail’s Ocean service is finally returning to the Maritimes – even if it won’t look quite the same as it did when the last train departed in March of 2020. VIA has just announced that the Ocean will resume its operations from Halifax on August 11, 2021, with a single weekly departure in each direction.

https://media.viarail.ca/en/press-releases/2021/rails-ocean-service-gradually-resume-starting-august-11

The first train will depart Halifax on August 11th, and the first eastbound trip will depart Montreal on August 15th; this will make for a schedule featuring Wednesday departures from Halifax and Sunday departures from Montreal, presumably following the same timetable as before the pandemic. VIA has labeled this a “gradual” resumption of service, and expressed optimism that additional frequencies will follow shortly; at the time of writing, an advisory on the VIA website shows tri-weekly service resuming in October, but this is always subject to change.

Consistent with trains like the Canadian that have been operating up to this point, the Ocean’s on board service offering will be much different during the first days of operation. Both Economy and Sleeper classes will be offered, in a mix of Renaissance and HEP1 stainless steel equipment, but passengers will not have free movement throughout the train. Sleeper passengers are asked to stick to their rooms for the duration of the trip, and Economy passengers to stay at their seats aside from trips to the washroom, or presumably stretch breaks at longer station stops. Passengers must wear masks on board, in keeping with federal requirements, except when eating or drinking or when in their own private rooms. Food service will be provided by cart to Economy passengers, and by room service to sleeper passengers – no meals in the dining car, for now. There will also be no lounge access for the time being, and while a Skyline dome may eventually be included in the consist, there won’t be one for the time being. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, all of these restrictions are subject to change as the situation evolves.

A special deadhead train will soon head east to ferry equipment from Montreal to Halifax to allow for crew training and the first departure from Halifax (*UPDATE: This deadhead train arrived in Halifax on the morning of July 13th). With the service shut down for such an extended period, quite a number of crew members have no doubt chosen to take retirement or have found other employment, so new on board crew training will be essential. Once this consist heads east, we should finally get a look at the new incarnation of the Ocean, now that the train cannot be turned. We expect to see a hybrid hodge-podge of Renaissance and HEP equipment, with baggage cars on both ends and no Park car, on account of the need to run the train in reverse for the return trip.

Regardless of the changes to the train, it is still a positive sign to see VIA’s return to the region, and TAA will continue to advocate for a full service resumption as soon as possible, and further improvements moving into the future.

VIA’s return to Halifax – on July 13, 2021, a full 16 months after the last train #15 departed on March 13, 2020, VIA equipment has at last returned to Halifax. With the locomotives back to back and the new bidirectional consist in tow, this consist will be used for on board crew training over the next several weeks, and depart Halifax as train #15 on August 11th. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

“OPEN WITH AN ASTERISK” – A DIFFERENT SUMMER AT MARINE ATLANTIC

MV Atlantic Vision will be making fewer appearances at Argentia this summer. Pandemic precautions have reduced the maximum passenger numbers to 300 per crossing, and a reduced level of customer amenities will be offered. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

More than two weeks delayed from the originally planned date, MV Atlantic Vision docked at Argentia NL on the morning of July 5, marking the launch a scaled-down 2021 seasonal service. Although it is a significant improvement over 2020 when the route did not operate at all, the Vision will be sailing this summer under the dark cloud of COVID-19. Consequently, many of the onboard amenities that had helped make the trip a special travel experience in recent years won’t be offered. And, there will be only two weekly round trips instead of the usual three.

Colin Tibbo, Marine Atlantic’s chief information officer and acting vice-president of customer experience, says there is sufficient flexibility in their operational plan to allow for a third return crossing should demand exceed expectations. But for now the departures from North Sydney will be at 1730 ADT on Sunday and Wednesday only, sailing from Argentia at 1700 NDT on Monday and Thursday. To allow for social distancing there will be a limit of 300 passengers per crossing, which means much of the auto deck space will be empty. Most of the passengers are expected to be in cabin accommodation, and Mr. Tibbo notes that demand for private rooms is stronger than ever. In fact, he senses a trend where this is a make-or-break condition for many prospective customers. However, the good news for unberthed passengers in lounges is that they will be sufficiently spaced so that wearing of masks will not be required once they are seated.

The popular buffet dining option on the Vision has fallen victim to the pandemic – perhaps permanently – and the upscale dining room experience will also not be offered this year. The only alternative to the ship’s rather small snack bar will be a light meal service available in the bar lounge area.

Mr. Tibbo said the company did not want to cancel the Argentia run again this year, despite the pandemic uncertainty, because they consider it to be an important part of their summer service offering. He noted that, despite the limited amenities, the initial July 4 departure was booked to 98% of its reduced passenger capacity a few days prior to sailing, which attests to the popularity of the seasonal route. The online “rolling schedule” that now allows customers to reserve up to 16 months in advance shows a return to three weekly crossings in 2022.

A similar passenger limitation applies to the year-round North Sydney-Port aux Basques route, where there are a minimum of two daily sailings. Public health measures are likewise in effect, and passenger amenities have been reduced accordingly. Commercial drivers are now berthed in single-occupancy cabins, which places additional pressure on accommodations aboard the Blue Puttees and Highlanders. The volume of commercial traffic hasn’t been significantly affected during the pandemic, and passenger bookings as of early July were running between 30 and 40 percent higher than corresponding dates in 2020.

Customer expectations for Marine Atlantic appear to have adjusted somewhat because of COVID-19, just as they have elsewhere in the transportation and hospitality industries, but Mr. Tibbo expects they will become higher with the passage of time. He’s reluctant, however, to predict timelines for the return to a higher level of customer amenities.

“We’ll see how it unfolds,” he says, “For now, we’re open – with an asterisk!”

-Ted Bartlett

MARITIME BUS BEGINS SIX-DAY OPERATION; DRL SOLDIERS ON

After a financially-challenging winter and spring, maintaining service only three times a week, Maritime Bus increased to a daily-except-Saturday schedule at the end of June. Owner Mike Cassidy is looking ahead to better days, but there’s still no indication of any federal support for a national integrated motorcoach network. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

With the rejigged Atlantic Bubble now in effect, Maritime Bus owner Mike Cassidy is looking ahead to better days – but he finds it hard to be optimistic. In anticipation of increased travel, the company bumped its schedules up to six days a week effective June 23, but uptake has been very slow, with three different reopening plans in the Maritime provinces having a dampening effect on ridership.

There’s been no response to date to the industry’s urgent pleas for federal support and a modest financial commitment to help rebuild a national intercity motorcoach network in the wake of Greyhound’s complete abandonment of Canadian service and the devastation of COVID-19.

“It appears as if there is no champion at the federal or provincial level,” Mr. Cassidy commented. “All I can say is that busing in Canada needs help.”

Meanwhile in Newfoundland, the orange DRL coaches are still plying their 900 km. route, serving 25 stops along the Trans-Canada highway from St. John’s to Port aux Basques. This despite a warning from owner Jason Roberts last month that financial pressures might force the company to cease operations. There’s been no word on the possibility of any assistance from the cash-strapped provincial government, along the lines of emergency aid extended earlier this year to Maritime Bus by Nova Scotia, PEI, and (after some prodding) New Brunswick.

But unlike elsewhere in Canada, there appears to be some onus on Ottawa to support DRL, which acquired the trans-island bus service from newly-privatized Canadian National in 1997. The so-called “Roadcruiser Service” had replaced the CN passenger train in 1969, and federal government responsibility to ensure continuing service at fares consistent with passenger rail elsewhere in Canada was acknowledged in the 1988 federal-provincial Memorandum of Understanding that provided for final abandonment of the Newfoundland Railway. However, none of the province’s six Liberal MPs have as yet weighed in on the issue.

SHUTTERED AIRPORTS REOPEN – WITH SOME NEW SERVICES

A water cannon salute greets PAL flight 905 on its inaugural arrival at Fredericton from Newfoundland on June 28. YFC was one of three Maritime airports to reopen late last month, after being closed since January. PHOTO – PAL Airlines

With the gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the aviation industry in Atlantic Canada is at last on final approach to what may prove to be a long period of recovery. Three regional airports in the Maritimes that had been completely devoid of scheduled passenger service for more than five months reopened for business in late June, and flight frequencies at others that had maintained limited service during the pandemic were noticeably increased. There were even some new destinations on departure boards around the region as airport spokespersons expressed cautious optimism.

Notable among recent developments was the return of scheduled service to Saint John, Fredericton and Sydney, which had been in hibernation since January. In addition to the return of Air Canada services to Toronto and Montreal, and WestJet flights to Toronto, YFC welcomed its first-ever direct service to and from Newfoundland with a tri-weekly flight by PAL Airlines to and from St. John’s with an intermediate stop at Deer Lake. In addition to the return of Air Canada service, discount carrier Flair Airlines was offering flights to Toronto from YSJ for as little as $49 one-way on a once-a-week 737 jet. At Sydney, WestJet resumed service to and from Halifax, while Air Canada was offering direct flights to Toronto.

St. John’s welcomed the return of direct service to Toronto by both Air Canada and WestJet, after an absence of several months. It would appear that Air Canada has no plans to resume local services between Halifax and various Maritime airports, but it looks like PAL is moving in to take up where the national carrier left off. PAL’s ambitious expansion plans also include offering service to Ottawa beginning in August. And by the time Porter Airlines returns to the skies in September, they may find the field a little bit crowded.

But make no mistake: air travel is by no means back to normal, or even approaching a new normal. The majority of the reinstated services are at greatly reduced frequencies – less than daily in many cases. Even the most optimistic air travel advocates will acknowledge that the road back will be a difficult one. Many restrictions remain in place, with most airports limiting access to their facilities strictly to passengers holding tickets. Most food and beverage concessions have not reopened, and masks must be worn continuously from entering the departure terminal until the exit on arrival.

There’s been no indication as to if or when overseas flights might return to Halifax Stanfield International Airport. For the foreseeable future, Atlantic Canadians destined to Europe or the UK will be obliged to fly several hours in the wrong direction before heading across the big pond.

NEW RURAL AND SMALL TOWN TRANSIT INITIATIVES UNDERWAY

A new fully-accessible transit service in Nova Scotia’s Pictou County launched on May 17, bringing public transportation back to New Glasgow and Stellarton after a 25-year absence. PHOTO – PC Transit

Residents of the Nova Scotia towns of New Glasgow and Stellarton are once again able to avail of public transit. Pictou County has not seen such a service since 1996, and the three-year pilot project should provide ample opportunity to prove that it is both needed and sustainable. 

Ridership numbers will determine if the service continues past the three-year trial, and promoters emphasize it is very important the community support the service by using it. 

The route is a one-hour bus loop through the two towns, but it’s been named Pictou County Transit in the hope that other communities will join in. 

The new, fully accessible, one-door-for-all, low-floor bus made its inaugural run on May 17.  The $190,000 capital cost was underwritten by the Province of Nova Scotia, which is also fully funding the first year of operations. Years two and three will see Stellarton and New Glasgow pay $50,000 and $100,000 annually, respectively. 

Meanwhile in New Brunswick, the community group Eastern Charlotte Waterways (ECW) has been awarded a rural transit pilot project grant by Environment and Climate Change Canada.  The federal funding will provide a new ride-share transportation system to the community of Blacks Harbour and the southwest New Brunswick region.

A media release says that issues of mobility and accessibility in rural communities are well documented, and Blacks Harbour is no exception. This pilot project aims to address these transportation issues by providing a fleet of electric cars for community-wide use. It will act as an on-demand door-to-door service. The new rideshare system which will launch in the fall of 2021, is the natural next step in working towards designing sustainable systems for rural communities in Charlotte County.

“ECW’s mandate has always been supporting sustainable projects that benefit local residents and the environment,” says Rick MacMillan, the group’s chair. “This investment will improve accessibility and the livelihoods of people in our community while raising the profile of the village to attract new businesses, visitors, and residents. Providing this climate-friendly ride-share program helps facilitate the community’s potential growth through connectivity.”

Blacks Harbour and the greater southwestern New Brunswick region has not had a public transportation option since the end of the RuralLynx project in 2020. With federal support, ECW will be able to operate an integrated public transportation model, built upon eight years of extensive research and reports from the Southwest Transit Authority Board as well as other community organizations both in and outside the province of New Brunswick. The announcement notes that the ECW team will be working collaboratively with key community partners that include the Charlotte County Multicultural Association and Vibrant Communities Charlotte County to ensure the pilot project is successful in providing all community members with an efficient, affordable and climate-friendly way to get around. This rural transit pilot project is described as an investment in social infrastructure that prioritizes rural communities and facilitates future growth.

FARES REMOVED FROM NOVA SCOTIA PROVINCIAL FERRIES

Passengers on the Englishtown Ferry in Cape Breton will no longer have to pay a fare, nor will users of any other of the intraprovincial ferries in Nova Scotia. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

Drivers in Nova Scotia will no longer have to pay to use any of the province’s seven intra-provincial ferry services, as the provincial government announced the permanent removal of ferry fees in late June. The ferry services, operated by Nova Scotia’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, include those at Englishtown and Little Narrows in Cape Breton, Country Harbour on the Eastern Shore,  Tancook and LaHave on the south shore, and Petit Passage and Grand Passage on Digby Neck.

When announcing the permanent removal of user fees, which had been waived in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, Premier Iain Rankin said the change will make transportation more “affordable and accessible for Nova Scotians”. Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines noted that the fees only covered a small percentage of operating costs, and were inefficient to collect and becoming an increasing burden to administer.

The province hopes that the removal of fees will help to encourage tourism by making more parts of the province more easily accessible, though it’s likely no coincidence that a provincial election is expected in the coming months.

A call for government action on urban transit in these challenging times

By Sheldon Phaneuf

Governments must intervene before it is too late

Urban transit has not escaped the devastating effects of the global pandemic. Service levels have been cut to public transit systems throughout Atlantic Canada. Although there are some systems that have restored service, many remain operating at significantly reduced levels.

Fredericton 50-60%

Moncton 70%

Saint John 70%

St. John’s 65-70%

Senior transit staff and municipal officials have been consistent with their messaging. “Service levels cannot be restored until ridership increases”. How can ridership increase if service is restricted?

There is a pivotal point at which the service cuts that were put in place in response to a temporary decrease in ridership begin to drive rider behaviour. Experts warn that public transit is on the verge of suffering long term consequences and refers to the phenomenon as a “death spiral”.

Ridership decreases. Revenues drop. Service is cut. Ridership further decreases because of a reduced service schedule…and the cycle continues.

If service cuts weren`t enough, 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.

A small change in perspective leads to a significant change in point of view

We can no longer accept the argument from provincial and federal levels of government that urban transit is a “municipal problem”. The fate of public transit cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the cities in which they operate. That does not mean municipal level governments can stand by and watch their transit systems fade into obscurity. The myopic view of public transit is rooted in the ill-informed assumptions of our city councillors, even those who call themselves “transit friendly”.

As long as public transit continues to be viewed as a reviled but necessary line item on municipal budgets, nothing will change. We need a fundamental shift away from the belief that public transit is a drain on municipal finances. Our elected officials must first come to terms with the fact that public transit will never pay for itself. Then they need to recognize that a full-service public transit system is an integral part of the municipal service infrastructure of any successful city. Public transit is an essential service.

Finally, they should consider the fact that public transit is one of the very few municipal services that “self-subsidize”. Public transit offsets its cost by generating revenue for city coffers. Imagine if other municipal services (road maintenance, waste collection, administrative support services, etc.) brought in $40 for every $100 they cost the city to operate, as public transit does. (Source: CUTA Revenue Cost Ratio Data 2018). Ironically, although public transit is one of the few city services to generate revenue, its often the first to suffer service cuts.

Public transit drives regional economic and population growth strategies

In the fall of 2020, the province of New Brunswick declined to participate in a federal relief program for municipal transit after misunderstanding who it was for and what it covered. Provinces were initially supposed to match federal dollars, but loopholes in the program resulted in provincial governments not having to put up any matching dollars. The New Brunswick government decided to fund municipal transit losses under the Federal Safe Restart program, but these funds were exclusively for pandemic related losses and no money was offered to help restore public transit service cuts.

The Nova Scotia provincial government accepted $16 million dollars under the public transit aid program. Coincidently, Halifax Transit returned to 100% full service in September 2020.

Our provincial leaders must pull their heads out of the sand and recognize the important role that public transit plays in regional economic and population growth. Population growth in Atlantic Canada is under threat from an aging population, low birth rates, high rates of out migration and low rates of interprovincial migration. In 2017, the federal government launched the Atlantic Immigration Pilot (AIP) to promote immigration in Atlantic Canada. Initial results are promising. In 2019, Atlantic Canada broke previous immigration records and welcomed 18,000 newcomers. These newcomers are professionals, entrepreneurs, working class and students and are typically drawn to the larger urban centres to which they are accustomed and that provide services like an efficient and affordable public transit system.

Public transit requires operational funding from all levels of government

In February 2021, the federal government announced almost $15 billion for public transit over the next eight years. This funding announcement exposes a crucial lack of understanding for what public transit needs to survive. The current federal and provincial investment strategy falls short. It fails to address the immediate and ongoing need for operational funding. Elected officials at all levels of government need to adjust their focus and consider the “return on investment” achieved through operational funding of public transit. 

Funding of public transit plays a vital role in supporting the social welfare network and provides mobility to our seniors, our low-income workers, and our students. Subsidizing efficient and affordable public transit systems will help drive a national strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ongoing operational investment in public transit fuels regional economic and population growth. When our elected officials look through this lens, they will see what advocates of public transit see…and finally begin to understand the social, environmental, and economic benefits of investing in urban transit.

Sheldon Phaneuf is a bus operator at Codiac Transpo in Moncton, and a member of ATU Local 1290

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.