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Stephen McNeil commits Nova Scotia to sinking ferry service

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It was not a good week for Nova Star Cruises, the operators of the Yarmouth-Portland ferry. But it may ultimately turn out to have been an even worse week for Stephen McNeil's Liberal government.

Let's start with Nova Star.

Last Tuesday, CEO Mark Amundsen announced it had reached a multi-year deal with Euroferries Express Ltd. to provide three-times-a-day winter service between Ramsgate, England, and Boulogne, France, beginning Nov. 1.

That sounded like good news: a "winter solution" for the ferry operator during the North American off-season to help stanch the flow of red ink from its money-spewing Yarmouth-Portland route.

The problem, as Euroferries itself noted, was that the deal was not actually done. The local British council said it wasn't even "imminent." And then -- shades of our own ongoing ferry fandangos -- the local paper reported "the last firm to run a passenger ferry service… went into administration in May 2013, owing… council more than £3 million in unpaid berthing fees."

Nova Star's news got worse. Nova Scotia Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan accused it of trying to get taxpayers here to subsidize European ferry riders.

And worse.

MacLellan expressed "disappointment" with the latest Yarmouth-Portland passenger count. Even Nova Star, which last year gobbled $28 million in government subsidies and is on track for another $13 million this year, admits it will be "very challenging" to meet its 80,000-passenger target this season.

Worst for Nova Star, MacLellan is already talking with three other firms interested in taking over the service.

Which may be what turns out to be the worst news for Stephen McNeil's government.

Last week, before the latest ferry fooforah had even slipped beneath the water line, the premier offered a ringing endorsement. "I'm committed to that link to the New England states. No decision has been made if it'll be the current [operator] or a future one, but let me be certain we are committed to a ferry service from Yarmouth."

Uh…

Given our litany of losses, even before Nova Star, how much is a Yarmouth-Portland ferry service worth to the Nova Scotia economy? How much should we subsidize the service before we say enough is too much?

Shouldn't our premier ask those questions before he makes promises we will have to keep?

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

Photo: Corey Templeton/flickr

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