DIGBY - The Princess of Acadia will soon get to retire.
A troop of federal Conservative members of parliament descended on the Digby ferry terminal Monday to announce their government’s commitment to providing a replacement vessel for the Digby-Saint John ferry service.
West Nova MP Greg Kerr said the announcement ends the uncertainty.
“This announcement shows that the federal government understands the importance of this ferry,” said Kerr. “We will have a modern vessel, a more cost-efficient vessel, and one that will last us for a long time.”
Kerr said they aren’t revealing the dollar amount of the budget commitment, though MP for Saint John Rodney Weston threw out the figure $60 million during his comments.
Other unofficial estimates put the cost of a replacement vessel as high as $150 million.
Kerr said the money budgeted under the Economic Action Plan 2013 won’t just be for the purchase of a boat. Some money will also be for any necessary renovations to the boat and or to the terminals.
“It’s a package and Transport Canada is being very careful right now not to talk about how much it is, until they have had a chance to look around the market place and see what boats are available,” said Kerr.
He said the government isn’t looking to build a boat but to find a newish one adding that he expects Transport Canada will update everyone “in the Fall” about the exact process, how long it will take, and what the next steps are.
“My understanding is there are a number of really new vessels out there, modern vessels on the market that might be a god fit for the service,” he said.
He says the search will take into account the current usage and try to predict foreseeable need.
"Having a long-term commitment to this ferry service allows people to plan to use the service in future years," said Paul Stackhouse of Annapolis Royal. Besides owning Hillsdale House Inn, a tourism-dependant business, Stackhouse is a member of the Bay of Fundy Marine Transportation Association that has been working for more than five years to secure a long-term commitment to a continued ferry service between Digby and Saint John.
He said motorcoach operators would not plan to use the ferry without a high degree of certainty that it will be in operation two to three years out. "Other potential users, either commercial or tourism-focused would not commit to using the ferry without certainty it will be there three to five years from now," he said. "It is notable as well that in the new tourism strategy there has been a shift of marketing dollars to Quebec, partly because they will drive to Nova Scotia. This presents an opportunity to target travellers from Quebec, as well as Ontario, to use the ferry to enter Nova Scotia through Digby."
“Cooke Aquaculture could add up to a thousand more trucks a year, Irving Shipbuilding, they have suggested they’ll be using the ferry more, those are things that will be part of the review process,” said Kerr.
Digby Mayor Ben Cleveland said the local municipal leaders have a big role to play in creating the economic atmosphere to make the route more sustainable.
“We have to work on attracting industry to the area, improving the economy here, “ he said. “That’s the most surefire way to get more traffic on the ferry.”
"I think there are many opportunities that can emerge from having the new ferry," said Stackhouse. "From a tourism perspective alone I think the Annapolis/Digby region needs to focus on developing a collaborative approach to marketing the area and nuture a partnership with the ferry operator to jointly promote the service as 'the' transportation mode to deliver more visitors to our doorsteps."
The Princess of Acadia has been in service on the Bay of Fundy since 1971 with room for 155 cars and 33 tractor trailers. Transport Canada owns the vessel and Bay Ferries Ltd., a private company, has the contract to operate the service until March 2014.
Several executives from Bay Ferries were present at the announcement but all declined to speak to the media.
Kerr and Weston were joined by Peter MacKay, the federal Defence Minister and Gerald Keddy, MP for the South Shore as well as several MLAs from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Kerr says it was his role working with Weston and Jim Thurber of the Bay of Fundy Marine Transportation Association to get this commitment.
“Now we can step back and let Transport Canada do their job,” he said. “The good news is we won’t be talking about this replacement vessel for decades. We should hear something this fall.”