The Dexter government is learning it was easier to pull the subsidy plug on the old Yarmouth-to-Maine ferry four years ago than to find a viable new gateway for the western Nova Scotia economy now.
But the search for a new ferry has taken an important step forward with the response to the government’s second request for proposals.
The first RFP elicited interest from only two proponents, neither with ferry experience and both judged inadequate. But the three contenders who submitted business plans Friday seem more promising.
Quest Navigation of Eliot, Me., is a returnee from the first RFP, with a new operating partner and backing of the Singapore yard that owns the ferry proposed for the route. The new contenders are established ferry companies with plenty of experience in mixed passenger-cargo routes.
Balearia Caribbean Ltd. is a Miami-based unit of Spain’s Balearia Group, which was founded in 1998 and operates 17 ferries, specializing in combined passenger and roll on/roll off cargo service. It serves Spain’s Balearic Islands from the ports of Valencia, Barcelona and Denia and operates three routes to North Africa. Its U.S. subsidiary run two Bahamas Express services from Florida.
P&O Ferries Holding Ltd. is a descendant of Britain’s venerable P&O line. Originally the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., it was founded in 1837, at first carrying mail and passengers to Spain, Portugal, Egypt and India, later bringing waves of immigrants to Australia.
Now owned by Dubai Ports World, P&O brand operates cruise ferries and passenger-freight ferries in the English Channel, North Sea and Irish sea—notably, Dover-Calais, Hull-Zeebrugge/Rotterdam and Liverpool-Dublin.
Quest, a 2012 startup, has the disadvantage of no track record. CEO Mark Amundsen has been tenacious in lining up a ship, taking on an experienced operating partner (International Shipping Partners of Miami manages a variety of charter cruise vessels) and reworking his bid as a joint venture with ST Marine of Singapore, builder and owner of the 1,215-passenger roll-on/roll-off ferry, Norman Leader.
But there is a question mark over this impressive-looking ship: it was built for the English Channel service of Louis Dreyfus Lines, which refused to complete the sale in 2011, citing delivery delays and deadweight capacity not meeting specifications. That warrants due diligence by the province’s review team to ensure the never-used vessel can be operated efficiently.
Now comes the crucial task of thoroughly testing the business plans of all three contenders. The province is offering up to $21 million in startup aid, many local businesses will have to make investment bets based on the winning service, if there is one, and a timely decision is needed for a 2014 start. A lot is riding on getting it right.