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BELLEDUNE, N.B. - There may yet be a new freight ferry service between the port of Belledune, N.B. and Corner Brook, Nfld.A nine-person committee struck in August to advance the project has received p...


BELLEDUNE, N.B. – There may yet be a new freight ferry service between the port of Belledune, N.B. and Corner Brook, Nfld.

A nine-person committee struck in August to advance the project has received positive feedback from all the interested parties, says Belledune Port Authority chairman Georges Marcoux. Now all they need is a ship and money to get started.

“Obviously, the first thing is the ship,” says Marcoux. “The support from the industry has been very good. But we have to find a ship that is at least a reasonable cost to make the project viable.”

Currently, most commercial traffic to Newfoundland travels on government-run ferries from North Sydney, N.S. to Port-aux-Basques Nfld., a distance of 174 kilometres. There is also a freighter-type ferry service from Montreal to St. John’s and a weekly Halifax-St. John’s-Corner Brook-Halifax run. In 1997, a total of 1,678 crossings carrying 412,812 passengers, 115,724 autos and 67,704 trucks were made from North Sydney alone.

The port of Belledune is on the northern New Brunswick coast at Chaleur Bay. The new service proposes to directly travel the 619 km from Belledune to Corner Brook, which is on Newfoundland’s western shore, a two-hour drive north of Port-aux-Basques.

The new service would save wear and tear on equipment and drivers, says Marcoux. According to a feasibility study of the project published in March 1999, a truck traveling from Montreal using the Belledune route, on a ferry capable of 16 to 18 knots, would reach Corner Brook six hours before a truck taking the North Sydney route. The study also said the new route would result in savings of 957 km, 18.5 hours and $644, before ferry costs and ferry time were considered.

“That’s why we need a boat that can do the crossing in less than 24 hours, so it can make the crossing two times a week,” says Marcoux. “If there is no time saving, it’s no good. We have to show potential customers that we can make them more efficient and save them money.”

Of course, the trucking industry is always willing to listen to an idea that might save it money. The same study reported that two out of every three trucking companies surveyed said that more marine access and less highway travel would be most beneficial to their business. While Ralph Boyd of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association agrees, he is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Sure, that is something that the trucking community would find interesting, but it depends on the shipping times, what type of vessel and what kind of cost,” Boyd says. “Obviously, we would have to know about things like savings in terms of time and money, but also the condition of the freight.”

Marcoux concedes that finding a vessel with the right combination of speed and stability is a challenge. While some fast ferries used for passengers and cars could make the Belledune-to-Newfoundland crossing in about nine hours, the trip could be “brutal”. For that reason, speed has to be sacrificed for comfort for the freight service, thus extending the crossing time.

“The big issue now is capacity – what size of boat is viable,” Marcoux explains. “The problem is there is a lot of freight going to Newfoundland and less coming back. If we choose a boat that is too big, it won’t work.”

Marcoux says there are lots of potential vessels in the Maritimes, either operating on other routes or under repair, and the committee has already toured many of them. “But if you say you want to spend $30 million on a ship, you have to show the business case,” he adds.

Predictably, the idea for the new freight ferry service has received the enthusiastic support of the city of Corner Brook; four members of the committee are from there, including Mayor David Luther.

“We see this as an opportunity for economic development here,” says Patricia Pye of the Corner Brook Economic Development office.

The freight ferry-service idea was hatched in early 1999 by officials from the Port of Belledune and the Chaleur Regional Development Commission. Since then, the group has been drumming up project financing and several investors are interested, Marcoux says.

“But you have to remember that this project is completely non-subsidized. So we have to look at all the issues and crunch the numbers. No one is going to invest unless we can come up with the right figures.

“Our target now is we would like to resolve this before the end of December. Then we could be ready to start in May of 2001.”

In the absence of private investors, the committee is looking at the option of an initial public offering, but that could set the project back perhaps a year, Marcoux says.

In addition to the funding required for the service itself, the feasibility study said the cost of additional infrastructure for the roll-on, roll-off service would total about $10 million in Belledune and $1.3 million in Corner Brook. n


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