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LETTER: Tunnel vision versus ‘unreasonable’ ferry rates

The crew of the MV Leif Ericson successfully rescued three people after a fishing vessel from Nova Scotia issued a distress call on Monday evening, Sept. 10. - Photo courtesy of Marine Atlantic
Photo courtesy of Marine Atlantic - Contributed

With a federal election rapidly approaching, the “Ottawa and You” theme of The Telegram’s Labour Day edition was most appropriate. However, the somewhat far-fetched proposal to build a subsea tunnel across the Strait of Belle Isle seems a rather peculiar choice among election issues critical to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Transport Action Atlantic would prefer to focus on a related subject far more current and critical to everyone in the province — the ever-escalating rates being charged on the constitutionally-guaranteed Marine Atlantic ferry service.

Some readers may recall that during the 2015 federal campaign Justin Trudeau termed the cost-recovery demands imposed on Marine Atlantic by the Harper Conservatives as “unreasonable,” stating that the ferry service was part of Newfoundland’s Trans-Canada Highway, and promising that a Liberal government would address the issue. But four years later, nothing has happened, and ferry charges continue to climb at a rate well in excess of the cost of living index. Prices paid for consumer goods here are adversely affected, and the cost of tourist travel to the province by car becomes ever more prohibitive.

Transportation was important to the people who designed the Terms of Union that brought Newfoundland and Labrador into Confederation in 1949. Term 32 not only obligated Canada to provide a federally supported ferry service between North Sydney and Port aux Basques, but offered a measure of protection against the higher living costs in the new province arising from geography. There was no highway across the island back then, so the 100-nautical-mile crossing of the Cabot Strait was appropriately rated as an “all-rail” movement. The additional handling and operational costs of the ferry were to be absorbed by the federal government through Crown-owned Canadian National Railways.

Much has changed in 70 years.

The railway across Newfoundland was totally abandoned in 1988, two decades after its legendary passenger service was discontinued. Traffic on the “constitutional” ferry route is now all highway-based.

But the basic principle of Term 32 remains. While road has replaced rail, the ferry service operated by Marine Atlantic on behalf of the federal government must now be viewed as an extension of the Trans-Canada Highway. If the spirit in which the Terms of Union were drafted is to be respected, vehicles crossing the Cabot Strait should be charged no more than the cost of driving them 180 kilometres by road. Arguably, there should be no extra charges for commercial drivers or the occupants of passenger vehicles. Significantly, these additional costs do not apply to users of the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island – also a constitutional obligation of the Government of Canada.

Over time, the best intentions of the latter-day Fathers of Confederation have been eroded. In the past two decades Marine Atlantic’s rates have more than doubled – an increase over three times the national inflation rate. Security fees and fuel surcharges have also been added. Notably, there are no such additional costs to users of the Confederation Bridge, where tolls are tied to the cost of living index.

And, interestingly, there’s a movement gaining momentum in P.E.I. to have the bridge tolls reduced.

We should not allow politicians to hide behind the smokescreen of a proposed tunnel that may never be built – and certainly not in lifetime of most people who are today paying the consequences of “unreasonable” ferry rates. So let’s address the real issue! The looming election presents a golden opportunity for voters in this province to ask some serious questions to candidates of all political persuasions. Specifically – “do you agree that the gulf ferry crossing is part of the Trans-Canada Highway, and that users should pay no more than the cost of driving the equivalent highway distance? If elected, would you work to ensure that ferry rates are reduced to be consistent with the intent of the Terms of Union?”

I should note that Transport Action Atlantic is a non-partisan advocacy organization. Our goal is to promote convenient, affordable and sustainable public transportation for all Atlantic Canadians, and new members are always welcome. For further information, please visit us online at www.transportactionatlantic.ca.

Ted Bartlett,
President, Transport Action Atlantic,
Moncton, N.B.


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