WATCH ABOVE: Nova Star Crusies says it will take at least 3-years before the service is financially viable which caused some heated exchanges. Global’s Marieke Walsh reports.
HALIFAX – Nova Star Cruises made its case to continue as the ferry service that links Nova Scotia to Maine on Thursday, saying it believes it can become financially viable within the next three years.
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CEO Mark Amundsen told the legislature’s economic development committee that his company expects to meet the 80,000 passenger threshold to make the company viable within that time.
The goal had been to reach that target this season, but figures released earlier this week show passenger traffic is down over this time last year and projections are for the ferry to hit the 60,000 passenger mark — a figure similar to last year’s total.
READ MORE: Nova Star numbers worse than last year
“The inconvenient truth is the ridership hasn’t been up,” said Amundsen. “We have to build collectively and collaboratively with Nova Scotia Tourism to get the ridership up.”
To make the service sustainable, Amundsen said Nova Star is working on a long-term cost plan that includes a switch to natural gas as fuel and is also increasing its marketing efforts in New England.
He acknowledged the importance of finding winter work and said the company is still negotiating to land a route between England and France, and has a back up plan if that falls through.
Amundsen said the service would still need help from taxpayers, but that the amount would be less in future years.
However, when pressed about how much would be needed by NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald, Amundsen didn’t have an answer.
“We have not factored for 2016, but it will be less,” he said.
In its initial season, the ferry received $28.5 million in provincial subsidies. The province committed $13 million for the service this year and so far has given out $9.6 million of that amount.
READ MORE: Government needs to show upside of keeping Yarmouth ferry: Consultant
The Transportation Department is assessing the service and is looking at three other potential operators for the 2016 season.
Alan Grant, the executive director of policy and planning for the department, said Nova Star is still in the mix.
“We’re not aware at this point of whether there’s a better boat out there or a better operator,” said Grant.
Deputy transportation minister Paul LaFleche told the committee that determining a reasonable level of subsidy is also part of the considerations, although he couldn’t give an exact dollar figure.
“We want to hear a realistic story about subsidy and benefit and passenger numbers, not sort of a dream,” he said.
The officials said a decision on an operator for 2016 would likely be made following the end of the current sailing season in mid-October.