01/10/2017 11:56 EST | Updated 01/11/2018 00:12 EST

Firm raises prospect of extending season of Nova Scotia to Maine ferry

HALIFAX — The operator of Nova Scotia's taxpayer-funded ferry to Maine says they are looking at ways of increasing passenger traffic after a disappointing first season, including a longer season and U.S. customs pre-clearance.

Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said Tuesday the company is examining a June 1 service start between Yarmouth, N.S., and Portland, and extending runs two weeks into the fall to help the province's tourism industry.

"There is a very good chance for this year, we are just working through final details of that now," MacDonald told reporters following an appearance before the legislature's economic development committee.

MacDonald said the move would depend on the availability of the port in Portland and on whether it makes economic sense to Bay Ferries. He said at this point, the company believes it can extend its season in October, but not by operating on a seven-day-a-week schedule.

In 2016 the high speed CAT ferry sailed from June 15 to Oct. 1.

He said Bay Ferries wants to improve upon its inaugural season, during which it carried 35,551 passengers — a figure well short of the 60,000 target projected by the province.

"We are very careful about making projections because many things can happen, but we're trying very hard to make the numbers as strong as they can be," said MacDonald. "We certainly hope that they will (improve)."

MacDonald told the committee Bay Ferries was preparing marketing plans based on what it had learned in 2016, and was also looking at longer-term improvements such as possible customs pre-clearance for passengers leaving Yarmouth.

He said the move would be attractive to the port in Portland, as well as passengers.

"If you can eliminate the inbound lanes by having those people clear customs on the Canadian side then it requires a lot less space in Portland. It's also much better for the customer in the sense that the ship touches ground in the U.S. and they drive into the city rather than having to wait around and go through customs."

MacDonald told the committee that the company holds to its October financial projections, when it said it did not need further operational money from the province for the fiscal year ending March 31.

Bay Ferries took over the ferry run last season, and was to get a subsidy of at least $32.7 million over the first two years of a 10-year deal with the provincial government.

Under the deal, the company is to get $23.3 million in the first year, including $9 million for a vessel refit and $4.1 million for startup costs and for terminal upgrades in Yarmouth. The operating subsidy for the first year is expected to be around $10 million.