WOOD ISLAND, P.E.I. - Ottawa is, once again, playing water polo with the Caribou, N.S. to Wood Islands, P.E.I. ferry service. This summer it extended the expired five-year contract with operator North...
VITAL LINK: Many aggregate haulers and other transport companies prefer the ferry service to the Confederation Bridge.
WOOD ISLAND, P.E.I. –Ottawa is, once again, playing water polo with the Caribou, N.S. to Wood Islands, P.E.I. ferry service. This summer it extended the expired five-year contract with operator Northumberland Ferries to March 31, 2011, but Ottawa has not said yet whether it will renew the contract again.
The provinces and users suffered this death row crisis five years ago, but pressured the federal government to belay its plan to cut service to just one ship in 2008. Now Ottawa is retrawling the waters for reasons why it should extend the service, or perhaps for clues to whether it dares to torpedo the thing.
The shiny new Confederation Bridge, opened in 2007, might seem reason enough to deep six the ferry service as another quaint Maritime anachronism, like manned lighthouses. The reality, however, proves such thinking to be a bit fishy. In 2009, 347,618 people and their 147,160 vehicles, including 13,166 commercial vehicles, voted with their wallets that the Confederation or Holiday Island ferries were more practical and 10 times more fun than the bridge.
Round trip ferry fares start at $65, compared to $42.50 for the bridge. A truck between 51-and 70-feet long pays $113 for a ferry crossing, and a five-axle rig pays $63.50 for the bridge.
So, if bridge equals ferry, who in their right mind would pay 50-78% more for the ferry?
“The understanding that most don’t get is that the bridge is great if you are going in that direction, but if you go to N.S. or Cape Breton, the ferry is vital,” says John MacLean, owner, MacLean’s Ready Mix in Victoria Cross, P.E.I. His company has been hauling construction materials regionally since 1953. An average of four or five MacLean’s trucks make two round trips on the ferries every day.
MacLean’s also does long hauls to and from, for example, Ontario and Quebec. Outbound trips to Upper Canada take MacLean’s rigs over the bridge, but the home stretch, after deliveries to Halifax, etc., is via Caribou and the ferries. Hanging a right at Truro instead of backtracking west to New Brunswick, across the bridge and then east home, saves about two hours driving.
Trucks heading from eastern P.E.I. to Cape Breton via the ferries, or vice-versa, save about three hours road time. There is a little matter of aggregate, not to mention the mountain of other produce and manufactured goods that flow in and out of P.E.I. This province, this land of red mud, does not have anything resembling rock. It all comes from off-island, and lots of it from quarries near Pictou and New Glasgow -a hop, skip and a jump from Caribou.
Bob Gordon, a driver with Greenfield Enterprises in Montague, P.E.I., crosses over to Nova Scotia every day to pick up gravel, without which the province’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal would be unable to make a single steaming pound of asphalt.
Gordon, who was polishing his wheel hubs while waiting with a half-dozen other rigs to catch the 11:15 sailing of the Confederation on the gorgeous August day I crossed the Northumberland Strait, gripes about having to take turns with cars and RVs on the ferries.
“We are ahead of all the tourists but the ferries (only have to take) four trucks at 1115h and four at 1330h. It can be 1115h and a camper can roll into the toll booth and the ferry makes sure it gets on.” He speaks with innocent bravado about the value of the service to Islanders. “One of these days they’ll shut’er down. And it really won’t hurt our feelings that much.”
MacLean has a more practical and, according to the numbers, widely-held point of view. After a winter taking the bridge, since the ferries do not run from late December to May 1, he says, “We can’t wait for the ferry to get started again to have that option.”
The Confederation can hold a mix of 18-20 commercial vehicles, and the Holiday Island 14-16, but they have to share the space. Northumberland Ferries holds an annual consultation group meeting with trucking companies.
“We discuss service levels and departure schedules. We guarantee a certain amount of space. It can be viewed as a cap, but it can also be viewed as a guaranteed minimum on a certain designated sailing. The minimum is four, but the carriers have preferred this block system,” explains Don Cormier, vice-president operations and safety management, Northumberland Ferries. “We have had a lot of scenarios where campers and RVs have missed a previous sailing but a truck arriving 15 minutes prior to sailing will go ahead of (them). Commercial traffic understands that the 0630h sailing is primarily there for them. We schedule crossings so trucks can do two round trips a day. They know that in the big picture a lot of effort is made to support commercial needs.”
Should a ferry service be subsidized? Well, that is the wrong question. The service, which Northumberland Ferries has run on a cost-recovery basis since it was launched in 1941, was never a corporate welfare bum greased by government charity. It is part of Canada’s transportation network and is no more “subsidized” than are Toronto’s 18-lane freeways, the Lion’s Gate Bridge, Roger’s Pass or any other single kilometre of Canada’s public road network.
“I believe these ferries have a positive impact on the environment, are a cost-effective means of travel, a tourist attraction and a really important cultural and heritage experience. It would be a big loss if they did not exist,” Cormier says.
MacLean adds, “The bottom line of benefits is that the ferry system is a vital link to P.E.I. We would never want to be down to just one way to get on and off the Island.”