Grim ferry tales

Staff ~ The Telegram
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There's an old warning to anyone who wants to buy a boat: it's the description of a vessel as "a hole in the water, into which you pour money."

Well, if there's proof of that anywhere, it's in the provincial government's slow-motion attempts to improve the province's ferry system.

There's an old warning to anyone who wants to buy a boat: it's the description of a vessel as "a hole in the water, into which you pour money."

Well, if there's proof of that anywhere, it's in the provincial government's slow-motion attempts to improve the province's ferry system.

First of all, the province's ferry fleet is definitely in need of repair, and in many cases, outright replacement. It's hugely expensive and wildly subsidized: this year, the province expects to spend almost $70 million on ferry operations, while collecting just $7.7 million in fares. In other words, a $62 million subsidy for rural parts of this province in a single year.

The overall marine services budget is a whopping $122 million, which includes some $55 million this year in the slower-than-expected process of building and replacing the clapped-out collection of historically ignored vessels now in service.

On the weekend, The Telegram pointed out how the government has regularly announced it was putting up large cash expenditures to build vessels, and then not spending the money. In the last three years, the province has committed to spend $92.9 million, and has wound up actually spending $29.9 million. The province at one point suggested it would have five new ferries in operation by 2011; now, it looks like just two. The two ferries that are currently under construction are behind schedule and even the province's transportation minister, Tom Hedderson, can't say whether the vessels are staying within their construction budgets.

It's tempting to say "too little, too late," but the mess of this province's ferry service is hardly a creation of the current government. For years, the mantra was "fix things only when they completely fail," which they regularly did. The current government is playing an expensive game of catch-up, and they're not catching up anywhere near as quickly as they said they were.

But not only was the system ignored by past governments, those same past governments actually took on more money-losing ferry ventures. Short of cash and needing to make the ledger look better, the government of Brian Tobin agreed to take over responsibility for ferry service to Labrador from the federal government for $340 million in 1997. In a classic case of "buy now, pay through the nose later," those same ferry services now cost $25 million a year, meaning, by next year, the equivalent of all that money (mostly, in fact, spent on road work) will be gone, and we'll just have the liability in perpetuity. Great deal.

And that's not the only curious thing that happens in ferry operations. The current government has kept construction of the vessels in this province. They have also, under a local economic development clause, exempted purchase of the ferries from the province's public tender act, so that things like engines and steel can be purchased in foreign countries in an effort to help the local economy. (The province doesn't have to explain why buying things like untendered steel from Europe helps this province's economy; under interprovincial trade agreements, they only have to say that they do.)

What would be interesting at some point is to see just how the money is spent: what the economic returns are to maintaining the fleet with its current operations, and just how much it costs for each particular leg of the province's service.

More to the point, which holes in the water take the most cash to fill.

Geographic location: Labrador, Europe

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Recent comments

  • Sea-Dog
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    Thats right fight and complain all you can but the problem still exists. This island (and Lab.) functioned quite nicely long before some idiot invented the bloody EI program did you ever consider that that just might be the real issue here

  • M from around the Bay
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    Just to clarify to those of you who have never and probably will never travel outside of the overpass: there are a lot of people from around the bay who work very hard and are very successful working at their jobs 52 weeks a year (there's more than just fishermen). Get your facts straight before you draw conclusions about other parts of the province. And the ferries are not just for pleasure trips, these communities depend on their ferries for food and other much needed supplies, so a dependable and efficient ferry service is much needed.

  • J
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    My argument is about taxpayer's subsidizing people living on isolated outcroppings around Newfoundland so they can live their idyllic lifestyles while drawing the dole in the off season. Please provide me with the name of one island serviced by a ferry where the main employer is not the fishery (not Newfoundland itself). Here, let me show you: http://www.tw.gov.nl.ca/ferryservices/schedules/index.html Other people's taxpayer dollars are subsidizing people living out in the sticks. The government should start relocating these people to the mainland of Newfoundland and Labrador. People wonder why NL has the highest income taxes in the country. It's to support this type of foolishness.

  • J
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    I would love to know why the Government subsidizes a ferry service to people living in isolation and drawing the dole? 8 weeks of fishing is not work. It's a hobby you do to get your stamps so you can bugger off the rest of the year. This is a simple statement of fact. Anybody who wanted to work 52 weeks a year wouldn't be living around the bay. I'm not talking about the service industry here either folks.

  • keith
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    J from All Over , maybe the government should stop subsidizing all those new roads that are being built in st. john's with taxpayers money.