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Port aux Basques delegation invited to Ottawa to discuss Marine Atlantic cost recovery’s provincial impact

A Marine Atlantic ferry dockside at the harbour in Channel-Port aux Basques.
A Marine Atlantic ferry dockside at the harbour in Channel-Port aux Basques. - Marine Atlantic photo
CHANNEL-PORT AUX BASQUES, N.L. —

Members of the Channel-Port aux Basques town council have been invited to Ottawa to appear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.

In an email, Mayor John Spencer said the Tuesday, May 14 meeting is intended to discuss the matter of Marine Atlantic’s federally mandated cost recovery.

“Ottawa needs to hear how cost recovery and affordability on our constitutionally guaranteed ferry connection is impacting the price of goods and services for Newfoundland and Labrador. Marine Atlantic needs to be on an equal footing with other Crown Corporations,” Spencer wrote.

“VIA Rail moves goods and people just like Marine Atlantic. So, why does Marine Atlantic have a cost-recovery noose of 65 per cent and VIA Rail has no cost recovery? Federal Liberals promised in 2015 to return Newfoundland's ferry system to affordable levels. Eliminating cost recovery is an excellent starting point.”

The town’s strategy was also discussed during a regular meeting of council on Tuesday, May 7. Coun. Jim Lane will accompany the mayor, and Spencer noted Ottawa was footing the bill for the trip.

After the initial five-minute presentation, there will be a one-hour question-and-answer session with the MPs, much like with the SNC-Lavalin proceedings.

“We’ve got a five-minute window. We’re going to prepare a document and they’ve got to look at it,” offered Lane, who will make the initial presentation to MPs. “We’re going to bullet (point) things and then we’ll say refer to this document, so that they can’t say, ‘Well you didn’t give us all the information.’”

Lane also hopes to do a trial run presentation to fellow councillors before the trip, should time permit.

“We’re really pressed for time. We met with Marine Atlantic today. We’re meeting with every stakeholder we can,” said Lane. “They’re all on side now.”

Spencer has done a great deal of research and found supporting documentation, both historical and recent, to strengthen council’s argument. He’s also written to provincial politicians and received overwhelming support from Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador (HNL), as well as fellow councils across the province at Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) conventions.

“Justin Trudeau said they were upset the fares had gone up by 11 per cent over a three-year period leading up to 2015? Well guess what? It’s gone up by another 10 per cent,” said Spencer. “Fares have gone up by 127 per cent since 2007.”

Spencer noted drop trailers now pay the same as rail cars once did, only the rail cars were subsidized.

“One hundred per cent of all the meat that comes in this province comes in through Marine Atlantic. We are impacted at the grocery shelf,” said Spencer.

He also spoke at length about the new bridge in Québec, which is estimated at $7 billion and, despite the auditor general’s recommendation to the contrary, will not have tolls.

“The bridge is in the riding of the Minister of Transport Marc Garneau and Justin Trudeau,” noted Spencer, who says the federal Liberals have not delivered on its 2015 promise to examine cost recovery.

Other issues

But cost recovery is not the only federal issue on Spencer’s mind.

“We’re also going to bring up (Vardy’s Island) and the climate change, and why we need funding,” said Spencer.

The mayor noted last year’s application for federal money to remove Vardy’s Island from the centre of the Port aux Basques harbour was due, at least in part, to lack of a partner. Now that Marine Atlantic has come on board, council hopes to finally secure funding to remove the island.

In an emailed statement, Marine Atlantic’s Corporate Communications Officer Darrell Mercer said the removal of Vardy’s Island is predominantly a safety issue.

“For vessels of the size required for Marine Atlantic’s operations, entering Port aux Basques harbour can be challenging as the channel is shallow and narrow. Vardy’s Island is in the centre of the harbour and can interfere with manoeuvring activities. Since the area regularly experiences strong winds, this further complicates the docking and undocking of vessels.

We anticipate the removal of Vardy’s Island, as well as improvements to the channel entering the harbour, would increase the operating capacity of our fleet while also providing an increased level of safety for passengers and infrastructure,” wrote Mercer.

“We are currently in an exploratory phase and will evaluate the potential costs, operational impacts, and environmental considerations of making significant changes to Port aux Basques harbour.”

Whatever the outcome from the presentation in Ottawa, Spencer admitted he was excited about the opportunity.

“It’s a tremendous honour to be invited,” said Spencer. “It’s fantastic from my perspective.”

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