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Bridge over troubled waters?

Bruce Wark engages in an epistolary exchange with Dave McCusker


Note from the web editor:

Why we are running this Upfront again? Well, because it recently sparked an email debate that speaks clearly to the murkiness surrounding this issue. After reading this article, Dave McCusker, Manager of Strategic Transportation Planning at Halifax Regional Municipality, sent our news editor, Tim Bousquet, a letter. Tim passed it on to Bruce, who started an email exchange with Dave. So, please reread the editorial and the emails and contribute to the debate yourself. -- Andy Murdoch

Mayor Peter Kelly was in full rhetorical flight recently when he depicted Halifax Harbour as a hassle-free highway. "It's what joins us, not what separates us," he declared. "You don't have to plow it, you don't have to salt it, you don't have to maintain it." Kelly's uncharacteristic eloquence was inspired by the proposed 250-seat fast ferries that he hopes will someday churn through the seven miles of seawater between Mill Cove in Bedford and the downtown Halifax ferry terminal. The mayor is an enthusiastic supporter of the $27 million HarbourLink project. But some of his municipal colleagues are a lot less gung ho. "This is just getting more bizarre by the moment," says Halifax councillor Sue Uteck. "All of a sudden this ferry just came out of the blue again. It moved up the priority list like greased lightning."

Uteck is angry about a closed-door meeting last month where, she says, councillors were pressured to make the fast ferry a key part of HRM's five-year transit plan. She and Dartmouth councillor Andrew Younger say the project should be put off until yawning gaps in bus service are closed first. "As much as staff say they're going to do things like the free Burnside shuttle or Bayer's Lake shuttle," Younger says for example, "there's no guarantee that's not in the motion approved by council." David McCusker, HRM's manager of traffic and transportation services, insists that the transit gaps will be closed by the end of the five-year plan and that the money is there for the Bedford ferry, too. He points out that bus services can't be extended until the new $25 million transit garage opens in Halifax. "Other than express transit service to Tantallon, there won't be any new services added to our transit system until 2010, when the Halifax garage is open," he says. "That's what's dictating the timing of any of these transit services that council is looking for."

McCusker is hoping the fast ferries will be roaring between Bedford and Halifax as early as 2011. But that seems unlikely even with mayor Kelly's fervent cheerleading. The project is based on a three-year-old consultants' report that recommends a one-way fare of $5. A telephone survey found only a tiny fraction of Bedford's population would be willing to pay that much. McCusker is hoping for a lower fare, but he can't say yet how much lower it might be.

"To be blunt about it, I think it's ill-conceived, the whole idea," says Tony Thompson, president of E.Y.E. Marine Consultants, the Dartmouth company which designed the Halifax, Dartmouth and Woodside ferries. Thompson predicts that ridership would not be high enough to sustain the costs of the fast ferries, which would burn more than 700 litres of diesel fuel during each hour of peak operations. "We're going to move 250 people during three trips in the morning and three in the afternoon," he says "and the other times will be really expensive to be operating because the boats will be running practically empty."

"It's like buying a Hummer to pick up milk at the grocery store," says Laurie McGowan, who operates a marine design company near Annapolis Royal. "These guys don't realize how much fuel these boats use. They're pigs." McGowan says HRM staff should be looking at smaller boats and more efficient designs, not just a 29- to 38-metre catamaran with four big engines. He also warns that boat construction costs can easily balloon out of control as they did in British Columbia. Three massive fast car ferries, estimated at $210 million in the 1990s, ended up costing $463 million. The huge cost overruns helped bring down the province's NDP government. To be fair, the Bedford project is much smaller, but it's hard to disagree with Tony Thompson when he says, "I hope a lot of people are questioning this and the councillors, too, before they spend our money."

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