HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government will announce its plan Wednesday to support the ferry link between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine, raising expectations that it could provide more public money for the passenger service.
Economic Development Minister Michel Samson has described the Nova Star ferry as an important piece of infrastructure similar to a highway to justify the $28.5 million that has been spent after its inaugural sailing season last year.
Bill Black, who once ran for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservatives and has commented extensively on the ferry, said he doesn't support the government's rationale.
The ferry is a tourist draw, not an infrastructure expenditure, Black said.
"If you look at the benefits of that they are way too small to justify anything like the money they spent last year," he said.
"What we should be watching for is whether they draw a line in the sand and say, 'After next year, unless it's like this, we're going to quit.'"
The $28.5 million figure includes a $21 million loan that was supposed to last seven years. It was spent in the first two months of the sailing season.
The money came following a four-year hiatus after the previous NDP government cancelled a public subsidy in 2009, resulting in the ferry service's demise.
Black said the ferry has become a difficult file for the Liberal government at a time when it should bring fiscal order to the province's books.
"The problem is you can put any conditions you want on it but the operator doesn't have any money so they are not in a position to guarantee anything," he said.
But the government and other supporters of the restored service say it has been vital to a corner of the province in need of economic development.
The province released tourism figures last week that give credit to the ferry for boosting visits. There was a five per cent rise in accommodation revenues from last June to September, with the largest hikes seen on the South Shore, in Yarmouth and the Acadian Shores, the Tourism Department said.
Last fall, the government said visitors who arrived in Nova Scotia via the ferry spent an estimated $13 million.
Neil MacKenzie of the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association said he believes the ferry service has given his area a needed boost and he'd like to see a new multi-year deal announced.
He said the recent drop of the Canadian dollar and plummeting world fuel prices should result in a better bottom line this year for both tourism operators and the ferry service itself.
"Visitors travel more when their dollar is worth more," said MacKenzie. "American visitors coming to Nova Scotia can get more for their dollar and they like that."