Ferry fare increase causes concerns

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on January 14, 2012

Newfoundlanders need to jump on the Marine Atlantic ferry increase, says Greer Hunt of Hunt's Transport Ltd.

"It's creating an unfair marketplace to keep putting rates up," said Hunt, whose business is based in Mount Pearl.

Hunt said it's tougher for the trucking industry to compete with the container ship industry because of ferry rates.

A lot of the trucking that Hunt's firm does is for the construction, oil and gas, and mining industries, but he said he can't always pass increased costs onto the customer because of the competition.

Hunt did his own analysis based on a 48-foot standard trailer loaded one way and empty on the return trip, which he said is common for the majority of freight to and from Newfoundland.

According to Hunt's calculations, despite the federal government subsidizing Marine Atlantic, the cost per nautical mile is double from North Sydney to Port aux Basques compaired to shipping by container ship from Halifax to St. John's - $11.57 versus $5.96.

But Hunt said it's not just about trucking. He also expressed concerns Friday for travellers who take the ferry, speculating it will make tourist destinations like Prince Edward Island more attractive for people from the eastern U.S. or other provinces.

The cost of passage for an adult between Port aux Basques and North Sydney will jump 14 per cent to $40.76, and climb 7.5 per cent to $107.85 for the Argentia-North Sydney service.

For the journey between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, the cost for two adults with a vehicle increases by almost $14 to $187.17, and a family of four (including two adults and two children) with a vehicle will have to pay $15 more in 2012, totalling $224.77.

From Argentia to North Sydney, the same rates increase by more than $20 in each case to $432.48 and $536.84 respectively.

Tariff rates will increase by four per cent over 2011 fares, and the drop trailer management fee for commercial customers will increase by $50. Onboard services, such as accommodations and food, will increase between three and four per cent on average. There is no change to the fuel surcharge.

All new rates are effective as of Friday for travel after Feb. 12.

Hunt has been critical of Marine Atlantic in the past. He got a barge to protest the level of service aboard Marine Atlantic, which he says has improved. But he said the barge can only be used for certain shipments and he said there's a wider concern for everyone when it comes to ferry rates.

"It can't be a good service at any cost," Hunt said.

"I also believe that Newfoundland should be treated equally as all Canadians when it comes to travelling our highways. A portion of N.L. is an island and the ferry link from the island to the mainland of Canada theoretically is our Trans-Canada Highway. Newfoundlanders should only bear the cost to travel this waterway the same as any other Canadian who travels the highway."

Chris Belbin of Belbin's Grocery in St. John's said he isn't sure how food prices in the province might be impacted by the increases, but he said factors - such as weather, crop changes and natural disasters around the world, along with ferry tieups due to high wind - affect the bottom line for consumers. The province's food supply, outside locally produced goods, is dependent on transportation.

He said he's seen several increases in invoices in recent months for various reasons. "I would be surprised if it didn't affect the prices somewhere or other. ... It's not only going to affect groceries. It's going to affect everything," Belbin said of the Marine Atlantic increase.

"It's a decision then if A, our supplier puts the price up because of this, then it comes down to B, are we going to absorb it or are we going to pass it on. It's a wild card right there. If you were making a barrel of money on this, you'd have trouble taking it on the nose. But in groceries, you don't make a barrel of money."

George Murphy, group researcher with the Consumer Group for Fair Gas Prices and an NDP MHA, said the federal government could increase the Marine Atlantic budget to insulate Newfoundland and Lab-rador consumers and businesses.

"My understanding is that inflation over this past year has run well under the four percentage points that Marine Atlantic has increased prices to travelers and business alike. They adjusted rates excessively as the inflation rate sits at 2.9 percentage points presently with inflation rates at 1.9 percentage points for all of 2010," Murphy said in a news release.

St. John's South-Mount Pearl NDP MP Ryan Cleary said he's concerned the fare increases will put Newfoundland and Labrador at a greater disadvantage in terms of tourism, trade and general cost of living over the Maritime provinces.

"While the terms of union with Canada guarantee freight and passenger service across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they don't dictate fares," Cleary said in a news release. "Slowly we are seeing Newfoundlanders and Labradorians being priced out of their constitutional right under the terms of union.

He said on one hand, the province is spending millions to attract tourists to the province, and on the other the Crown corporation is making it less affordable for people to travel here.

"At some point people are just going to stop in Nova Scotia and not bother to make the expensive trip across the Gulf of St. Lawrence," Cleary said, adding the cost of sailing between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland should equal the cost of driving the same distance.

He said the price should be comparable to a trip across the Confederation Bridge between P.E.I. and New Brunswick.

"To make a return trip on the Confederation Bridge costs $44.25 for a single vehicle, when you compare that to the cost of $450 aboard a Marine Atlantic ferry is just ridiculously out of whack."

bsweet@thetelegram.com