N.S. knew about million-dollar commitments to shift CAT service to Bar Harbor since June: documents

The CAT, a high-speed passenger ferry, departs Yarmouth, N.S., heading to Portland, Maine, on its first scheduled trip on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.
The CAT, a high-speed passenger ferry, departs Yarmouth, N.S., heading to Portland, Maine, on its first scheduled trip on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Andrew Vaughan/ The Canadian Press

Members of the Nova Scotia government have been kept in the loop by the operators of a high-speed ferry on their plans to shift the service’s American port to Bar Harbor, Maine, a trove of internal emails and memos released under a freedom of information request reveal.

The documents reveal that Nova Scotia has known about a series of commitments made between Bay Ferries Ltd., and Bar Harbor since June and that they have implicitly approved of the deal around the high-speed ferry service, better known as the CAT.

The commitments, which were first reported by Global News on Tuesday, include a US$1-million guarantee of Bay Ferries’ five-year lease of the Bar Harbor ferry terminal as well as a US$3 million commitment towards upgrades and improvements at the terminal.

Those expenses would be in addition to the $10-million annual subsidy that the province provides to Bay Ferries.

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On Wednesday, the transportation minister was coy in response to questions whether the province was prepared to pay the costs associated with the move.

Lloyd Hines said he’d like to see more solid financials before his department signed off on the move to Bar Harbor.

“We’ll bring forward a recommendation, which we’ll share with the people of the province when we know exactly what we’re doing,” he said.

Hines told Global News was first approached about a possible move for the Cat’s American port at least a year ago.

READ MORE: Bay Ferries set to move the CAT’s American port to Bar Harbor, Maine

Kept in the loop

But the documents released by the provincial government paint the picture the transportation department is deeply involved in discussions around the high-speed ferry service.

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At least 10 emails that made it to the desk of Diane Saurette, Nova Scotia’s executive director of finance and strategic capital infrastructure in the Department of Transportation, between May 1 and July 31, were sent by someone with an email address belonging to Bay Ferries.

The Bay Ferries official, or officials, have had their names redacted. Although in one case, the government failed to redact the title of one official in their email signature, allowing Global News to identify him as Mark MacDonald, chairman and CEO of Bay Ferries.

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The emails indicate that the transportation department was kept up to date with Bay Ferries’ plans to move to Bar Harbor.

That includes Bay Ferries sharing a “backgrounder” on the history of ferry services in Bar Harbor, and a Bay Ferries official arranging to be included in a meeting between United States Sen. Angus King of Maine and Premier Stephen McNeil.

Most of the details on what the official hoped to discuss in that meeting have been redacted but “province commitment to the service” and “benefits delivered to U.S. and the State of Maine in particular” are two of the subjects that remain.

Commitment to Bar Harbor

A briefing note from the Nova Scotia government that was dated July 4, 2018, sheds more light on why Bay Ferries is committing itself to Bar Harbor.

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The note indicates that a dispute with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) over the funding of security upgrades in Portland is not actually over.

Despite the Nova Scotia government funding $1.5 million in upgrades in March, it appears that USCBP requires a substantial commitment from Bay Ferries or the Nova Scotia government to continue service into the future.

“Firm USCBP commitment for US $7 million facility for Portland required by October 15, 2018, or else no USCBP service in 2019 and 2020,” the note reads.

A shorter trip to Bar Harbor and approximately 3.5-million annual visitors to the nearby Acadia National Park are cited as additional reasons to commit to Bar Harbor.

READ MORE: CAT’s August ridership numbers largest in service history, more needed to meet passenger targets

Decision likely to comes this month

The lease agreement between Bay Ferries and the City of Portland is set to expire on Nov. 15.

Bay Ferries has an option to renew for another year and after signing a month-long extension, must notify Portland of its decision by Nov. 15.

The City of Portland told Global News that as of Tuesday, they have not been notified by Bay Ferries of their decision.

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The Bar Harbor Town Council will consider the five-year lease — which is set to go into effect on Dec. 1 — on Oct. 16.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia to fund $1.5M in security upgrades to Maine’s CAT terminal

CTF calls on N.S. to dump CAT service

Wednesday also saw the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) call on the Nova Scotia government to shut down or sell off the CAT, as a result of a Global News report.

“For Nova Scotia taxpayers, there’s no end in sight for these costs,” said CTF Atlantic director Paige MacPherson.

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