In less than a week, the government of Newfoundland should be having a good look at several possible futures for Labrador’s ferry service.
The end of April is the deadline for companies to submit proposals on running ferries across the Strait of Belle Isle and up the northern Labrador coast for a full 15 years, starting in 2016. When the Department of Transportation and Works belatedly announced the request for proposals in December 2013 (the Nunatsiavut government complained the province kept delaying the call), it stressed that the Labrador services, currently conducted by two different companies, would be awarded to a single contractor.
“A minimum of two vessels will provide passenger, vehicle and freight service for both the north coast of Labrador and the Labrador Straits,” a government news release said. “Vessels will be ice-class, have roll-on, roll-off capability and must be new or built in 2010 or later.”
The four hand-me-down boats that now ply Labrador’s waters — the MVs Apollo, Sir Robert Bond, Northern Ranger and Astron — are old, inadequate and even dangerous in that they break down far more than they should. The Northern Ranger, in particular, has become prone to shipboard fires.
In any case, these boats were largely unsuitable for Labrador’s needs from the start. The Bond, for instance, was acquired and fitted to run railway carriages to North Sydney, not automobiles to Blanc Sablon.
“We have experienced more than our fair share of problems with the existing service,” Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo said last fall. “Without a concrete plan in place to address this issue, we fear the worst is yet to come.”
Since then the government has come out with the request for proposals, and that has been welcomed by most, but with some reservations. The need is so old and the solution so long overdue there is fear that more bad things could happen in the meantime. Even if the government actually manages to get two new boats into service in 2016 (which many doubt is possible), that still leaves two whole seasons for everyone to nervously depend on a decrepit fleet of unreliable boats whose home port should be the ship-breaker’s yard.
However, perhaps all will go well. Perhaps there will be no more fires, no more mechanical breakdowns, no strandings or delays, and no cancellation of whole weeks of scheduled trips. Perhaps there will only be minimal inconvenience (for once) and perhaps the two shiny new boats will be delivered on time and as ordered.
Success, however, will still leave a couple of questions: exactly what services does the government want delivered for those 15 years and how much are they going to cost? Unfortunately, the government is being its typical secretive self. It won’t release the budget figures and it is keeping everything else confidential, beyond a vague outline provided in a news release.
Normally, anyone wanting information about the sizes of the boats required and the kinds of facilities that will be on board should be able to read the specifications on the government’s actual request for proposals (RFPs), but the curious citizen seeking the document might have difficulty finding it online, as it does not seem to be listed with all of the other government RFPs — leading to holiday-weekend speculation that perhaps the government has quietly extended the deadline or even cancelled the call for proposals.
Anyhow, it is likely, given that the public coffers will be empty for the foreseeable future, the Labrador Marine Service will be cheap and bare-boned. That’s not in itself a bad thing. As long as the two new boats can meet passenger demand and not need repairs every time they set sail, it will be a vast improvement over the current situation. Two new boats could actually prove themselves better than the four old ones combined.
What’s at issue is how the government plans to allow the service to change over those 15 years to meet the hopefully growing demands of passengers, both Labrador residents and tourists. The proposal soon to be chosen will show if the government sees the boats as assets to be nurtured, or as liabilities to be starved of resources.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.