04/30/2015 12:13 EDT | Updated 08/08/2015 12:59 EDT

Nova Scotia opts for alternative procurement for Maine ferry service

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government has scrapped plans to issue a request for proposals for the ferry run to Maine, opting instead to use a different process that it says will expedite finding an operator for next year's sailing season.

But the Opposition says the government's decision to go through an alternative procurement is an attempt to avoid public scrutiny.

Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan said Thursday that while there is a commitment to Nova Star Cruises for this year's sailing season, the government favours alternate procurement because it is quicker and provides greater flexibility, should a replacement operator be needed for 2016.

MacLellan said alternate procurement allows the government to go directly to ferry operators and ask them how they would deliver the service, a process he said is a good fit given past experiences with requests for proposals for the ferry run between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine.

"We've tried that process before and it certainly was a limited success," he said.

MacLellan said the alternate procurement would begin immediately because the government is committed to having a ferry service in place in 2016.

In February, the Liberal government said it was planning to issue a request for proposals for next year, regardless of the outcome of this year's sailing season.

The province spent $28.5 million to subsidize the inaugural season last year, which included a $21 million loan that was supposed to last seven years. The loan was spent in the first two months of operation.

MacLellan also said Thursday that the government has given Nova Star $6.1 million of the $13 million allotted for the upcoming sailing season, which begins June 1.

Opposition Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the move to switch procurement methods shows the government hasn't learned from past concerns about the lack of transparency over public funding for the ferry service.

"I think it's time the Liberals acted in a more open and transparent manner about what it is they have planned for the long-term service of the Yarmouth ferry," said Baillie.

The government has promised more oversight for the service and now requires monthly reporting of passenger numbers and full access to the ferry's books. Funding is being provided to Nova Star each month and only after the company submits its expenses for review.

Nova Star Cruises has set a goal of 80,000 passengers for this year.