Ferry rate challenge a crucial issue

Published on April 11, 2016

Letters to the Editor

The alarm bells should be sounding all over the province about the latest bizarre turn in the long-running debate over gulf ferry rates.

This time it’s about the challenge launched in the Federal Court of Canada by Oceanex, claiming that the rates charged by Marine Atlantic for tractor-trailers are too low! (“Shipping war brewing between Oceanex and Marine Atlantic,” March 22.)
This is an issue of historic proportions, with huge implications for Newfoundland and Labrador. Oceanex is, in effect, asking the Federal Court of Canada to negate the spirit of the terms of union, which were meant to ensure that the people of the then new province were placed on a level transportation playing field.
Term 32 was phrased consistent with the realities that existed when the deal was negotiated in 1948, but its intent clearly was to treat the Cabot Strait as an extension of the national railway network — there was no Trans-Canada Highway back then. Freight moving to Newfoundland was to be rated as if it were an allrail movement. If you apply that philosophy to today’s situation, the cost of moving a trailer of freight between North Sydney and Port aux Basques should be equivalent to that of hauling it over 185 kilometres of highway.
People in the trucking industry should be able to say precisely what that figure would be, but it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s a lot less than Marine Atlantic is currently charging. Transport Action Atlantic’s position has been that ferry rates are already too steep; the cost recovery level set by Transport Canada is excessively high — exactly as Justin Trudeau maintained during last fall’s federal election campaign. The rates really should be reduced — certainly not increased, as Oceanex is advocating.
Newfoundlanders are already paying too much for their groceries and other consumer goods (and passenger and personal vehicle transportation as well) because Marine Atlantic’s cost recovery ratio is higher than we believe it should be.
If Oceanex can be profitable by providing a service beyond the scope of the constitutionally guaranteed ferry service, well and good! But the terms of union are sacrosanct, and must not take second place to interests of private enterprise.
Make no mistake, this issue is crucial to the entire population of Newfoundland and Labrador — and the provincial government should meet this threat with all the strength it can muster. If Term 32 is allowed to be violated, generations to come will pay the price.

Ted Bartlett, president Transport
Action Atlantic Moncton, N.B.