07/05/2013 08:08 EDT | Updated 09/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia receives three bids for ferry service between Yarmouth and Maine

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government said Friday it has received business plans from three companies interested in operating a ferry service between Yarmouth and Maine.

Economic Development Minister Graham Steele said the next step is to evaluate the proposals to determine whether any of the bidders are capable of running a viable service.

The assessment will be conducted by a team from the Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership and government departments.

The NDP government rejected two bids earlier this year, saying neither met the criteria for a sustainable operation.

Steele said the government's goal is to have a new ferry in operation in 2014.

"We're very reassured that we have some experienced, credible, international operators who know how to run ferry services, who've put business plans in," he said outside the legislature.

The minister said all of the bids came in Thursday, the last day business plans could be submitted, and he hasn't read them yet. He promised to provide an update on the evaluation within three weeks.

However, Steele admitted that the timing of the next provincial election — which could happen before the end of the year — could delay the project further.

"We're in that stage in the election cycle where an election can interfere with everything that the government is doing longer term," he said. "My job is to do the work that needs to be done."

As well, Steele said the condition of the Yarmouth wharf needs to be assessed. That could take more time because the facility is owned by the federal government.

"I expect them to step up to the plate and do what needs to be done to help restore the service," Steele said, adding that he will be talking to his federal counterparts.

The companies that submitted bids are Balearia Caribbean, P&O Ferries and STM/Quest.

A government spokeswoman confirmed that STM/Quest is related to Quest Navigation of Eliot, Maine, one of the two companies whose bids were rejected in March.

"We expect that the bid will be substantially different," said spokeswoman Megan Tonet.

Earlier this year, the CEO of Quest Navigation, Mark Amundsen, issued a statement saying he was confident the company's plan for a year-round ferry service between Yarmouth and Portland was the best option for the province.

The other company that was told its bid wasn't good enough was Maritime Applied Physics Corp. of Baltimore.

The Yarmouth-to-Maine link was discontinued in December 2009 after the province cut its annual $6-million subsidy when it concluded the money-losing business wasn't viable.

That ended a link between Yarmouth and the United States going back to the 1880s.

The provincial government faced sharp criticism for killing the subsidy. Residents in southwestern Nova Scotia staged protests when it became clear the loss of the ferry would hurt the tourism industry.

The government is now offering $21 million over seven years to restart the service.

Steele said the startup funding won't be extended to become a permanent subsidy.

"It is not in anybody's interest to have a service that requires a large permanent subsidy," he said.

Liberal Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil said he's confident a new ferry service can thrive.

"All of southwestern Nova Scotia is excited by the prospect of seeing a ferry back," he said outside the legislature. "I think that service can be profitable in the long run."

He said the southwestern region was once served by two ferry services that survived without government subsidies.

Still, McNeil said he was concerned about the federal government's role in reopening the Yarmouth terminal.

"There are a lot of moving parts," he said. "We need to get control of the wharf."