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Ottawa talks Marine Atlantic hikes

A Marine Atlantic ferry leaves Port aux Basques en route to North Sydney, Nova Scotia. The Crown corporation’s federally mandated cost recovery has a direct impact on summer tourism and affects the cost of living for all residents of Newfoundland and Labrador. – ©FILIE PHOTO

By ROSALYN ROY

PORT AUX BASQUES – Members of Town Council were encouraged to learn that their ongoing lobbying efforts to address Marine Atlantic’s continued rate increases are finally getting noticed in Ottawa and gaining support from other municipalities around the province.

Deputy Mayor Todd Strickland reported on a recent virtual meeting for municipalities, where Mayor John Spencer also spoke about the high cost of crossing the Gulf of St. Lawrence using the ferry service.

Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) has sent out a template to its membership that they can use to draft their own letters to Ottawa protesting the latest round of increases, which will come into effect in a few weeks.

“I guess it’s to our MPs and our federal counterparts,” offered Strickland, who did not have a copy of the template on hand during the Wednesday, Mar. 10 virtual council meeting.

Marine Atlantic’s Corporate Communications Officer, Darrell Mercer, acknowledged during an NTV News interview that the increases this year are tied directly to meeting the federally mandated 65 percent cost recovery target.

On April 1, rates for commercial vehicles and non-commercial passengers on the Argentia to North Sydney run will see yet another round of fare hikes. Non-commercial passengers on the Port-aux-Basques to North Sydney run will not experience a rate increase.

On Tuesday, Mar. 10, MP Jack Harris (St. John’s East) brought the matter to the floor during a virtual session of Parliament.

“High fees discourage travellers and visitors, and increase food prices and cost of living, and hurt struggling businesses,” said Harris.

He noted that tourism businesses have taken a particularly hard hit during the pandemic that effectively killed the province’s summer tourism season, and municipalities are ‘deeply concerned’.

Harris reminded Parliament that in 2015, Justin Trudeau called the cost recovery rate formula unreasonable but that his government has failed to correct it and fees have continued to increase regularly.

“Will the Prime Minister put an end to this and reverse these unfair increases?,” asked Harris.

Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, replied by telling Harris that colleagues in the Atlantic caucus have discussed the issue on many occasions.

“I’ve been listening to them. I’ve been hearing about the concerns that they’re raising with me and I’ve been reassuring them that we are listening to Canadians. We will examine their concerns and we will do what is best for Canadians.”

What exactly that might entail for the future of Newfoundland tourism when it comes to ferry passenger rates remains to be seen.

Mandy Ryan Francis, owner of Port aux Basques Marine Excursions, says that she’s not sure her tourism business will necessarily be impacted, since the Port aux Basques ferry passenger rates won’t increase this time. However, her fishing tour business does occasionally get customers that enter through the Avalon and loop the province before sailing home out of Port aux Basques. The increased ferry rates may have an overall impact on that segment of tourists.

“Anything that any government agency does to increase prices especially for people coming into the province at such a critical point, where we’re at an all-time low,” pauses Francis. “You know it’s not helping, put it that way. It’s not helpful. What we need is the opposite actually. What we need is a decrease in fees to help encourage people to come to the province I would think.”

Mayor John Spencer says he is optimistic now that cost recovery and rate increases are finally getting some attention in Ottawa.

“Real change comes through the collective will of the electorate. If enough voices are heard, meaningful change can result. Returning affordability to the Gulf ferry system will need all the voices it can muster,” wrote Spencer via e-mail.

Since first taking office in 2017, Mayor Spencer has been advocating for the reduction, if not outright abolishment, of the cost recovery mandate since it usually triggers a rate increase. He noted that the morning after Harris spoke to Parliament, he a phone call from MP Gudie Hutchings, which he unfortunately missed.

The mayor believes the next two weeks are critical during the Newfoundland caucus meeting, which has already presented a letter to the Minister of Transport. Spencer hasn’t actually seen the letter but considers it progress none the less.

“We are getting somewhere. There is an opening,” offered Spencer during the council meeting. “That is the message.

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