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Government delays may scuttle Nova Scotia ferry service

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It's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the conundrum Stephen McNeil's Liberals face as they scramble to figure out what to do next with the listing ship that is the Yarmouth-Portland ferry service.

But it's also hard not to believe the government's decision last week to put off deciding who will run the service next year may have pulled the bath plug on any hopes the ferry service can succeed next season -- or, perhaps, ever.

The government, it's fair to say, is not happy with Nova Star, its current ferry operator. It's also fair to note the Liberals did not pick Nova Star. The then-NDP government -- which had cut off subsidies for the previous operator in 2010 (thus cutting the service) -- reached a broad-strokes deal with Nova Star on its way out the electoral door in 2013.

But McNeil's Liberal government not only negotiated the actual terms under which Nova Star runs the ferry, it also forked over $21 million to the company to keep it sailing in 2014, and has pledged another $13 million for this year.

But ticket sales have been disappointing. The Nova Star is on track to carry just 60,000 passengers this season; that's 25 per cent below the numbers the company had been projecting.

To make matters worse, the government says it isn't satisfied with the financial information the company has been supplying in exchange for its government funding.

So the government has been not-so-quietly speed-dating other companies as potential replacements for Nova Star next year.

Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan had been hoping to announce his next-year decision last week but backed off. "I've decided to take more time to make sure we get this right for Nova Scotians for the long term."

Which, at one level, makes sense. There have been more than enough mis-steps on the ferry file.

But the longer the government delays naming a new operator -- given relations between the government and Nova Star, it's doubtful that company will get a third chance -- the harder it will be for the new operator to develop and implement a marketing plan that can generate significantly more passengers at lower costs next season.

And without that, there can be no ferry service.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Matt Hintsa/flickr

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