Take to the sea

Photo: Destination Halifax

If there’s one service people give Metro Transit high marks for, it’s the harbour ferry. While cramped buses take hours to wind along hilly roads with routes wending through Halifax, the ferry glides effortlessly from point A to point B (or C, if you’re going to Woodside). As an added bonus, summer rides bring along cool breezes and refreshing scenery. That’s probably why recent cuts (later reversed) to late-night ferry service caused such outcry.
Yet, despite having the second largest natural harbour in the world, Halifax is severely lacking in aquatic transit. But that may soon change, as a private water-taxi service could start up by the end of the year. “It’s subject to Transport Canada,” says Sherri Spicer, vice president of operations for Fares & Co. Developments. “If we can get things, you know, all of our ducks in a row, we would like to start it this year.”
Fares is looking to link the downtown core with its King’s Wharf development in Dartmouth. The $300-million residential and business complex could soon become the first stop in a new kind of commute onto the peninsula. “It’s going to be a great asset to both Halifax and to Dartmouth,” says Spicer. “It’ll be just another thing in addition to our current ferry service, joining the two downtowns together.”
Taking only eight minutes, the trip could be taken in Fares’ recently purchased Boston Wheeler, which holds four. Spicer says plans to purchase another eight-person craft are also in the works. Open to the public, the service would operate more like a street cab than Metro Transit’s set schedule and points of departure.
“We’d like to model it more on a taxi service. That is the aim,” says Spicer. “It may eventually be like Vancouver, or in New York, where they have an extensive taxi service on the water. We would like to see it as a water taxi service, and you pay by kilometre and where your destination is.”
But Fares isn’t the first company to get its feet wet in harbour transit. Murphy’s on the Water, which still operates several harbour tours, ran a water taxi service up until a few years ago. “We had a stop here, one down at the casino and one up at Pier 21,” says co-owner Peter Murphy. “But the reality is the economics don’t work when people can just walk. And the economics of running the boat means you have to charge a fairly good price, and people just don’t do it. You can just take the ferry across. Even Bedford, they can’t seem to make that work. And the city, I think, has given up on that because the economics of it are so very, very expensive to run a boat.”
The long-delayed “fast ferry” would have linked Bedford to downtown Halifax. Plans for the vessel have been proposed, shelved, studied and re-shelved for years, but the projected cost of $30 million seems to have ultimately laid the idea to rest.
As a smaller service though, the King’s Wharf shuttle wouldn’t need anywhere near the influx of capital to get going. “A lot of it is depending on the size of the craft,” says Spicer. “Once you start getting into a larger craft, then yes, it obviously becomes a more complicated procedure. But right now, we’re hoping because we’re very small, that it might be looked at a little bit differently.”
Even with sufficient funding, Murphy warns any potential water taxi companies about dealing with a municipal regulatory environment that he dubs “onerous”—particularly a tender process that leads operators to bid on and compete for where they’ll get to park their boats. “It’s hard to do much of a business plan because you don’t know,” he says. “You can’t really buy a boat until you know you have a dock, and they only give you the dock for three or five years. So if you try to do the economics on it, it’s really difficult.”
But that’s just dealing with the city and the Waterfront Development Corporation. Other problems crop up at the federal level. “The regulations are kind of foolish,” says Stephen Kiley, whose Purcell’s Cove Marine used to rent boats for everything from shark fishing to harbour excursions. Operating under the monolithic jurisdiction of Transport Canada proved too strenuous to keep his operation afloat.
“The insurance was like five or six grand before we even got started,” he says. “It was about five grand every year before we even took a charter. It just got to be, you know, with your insurance, get the boat registered, inspected, updating our licenses…It was just turning into a money grab, more or less. We just got out of it.”
According to Transport Canada rules, all commercial vessels must adhere to the lengthy provisions within the Canada Shipping Act. While not required, it’s also strongly recommended business owners register with the Small Vessel Compliance Program as well. And that’s all before insurance, crew costs, fuel and a notoriously short summer for open-air harbour rides.
“It’s a short season for a water taxi,” says Murphy. “Unless it’s a heated, enclosed big boat. And then you’re just purely a commuter thing. There are no tourists here in the winter. At least, any that want to go for a boat ride.”
But Fares’ taxi service is skipping the tourism crowd altogether, banking on an increased interest in harbour crossings as Dartmouth’s waterfront becomes more and more developed. Instead of struggling against, the company has also been working with the Waterfront Development Corporation (WDC) to cut through some bureaucratic red tape.
“This is a joint effort, with the WDC,” says Spicer. “We were the ones who were aggressive about it, and we went to the WDC, but they’re the ones that really do want to make it happen. And so they’re trying to work with us in providing some information and marketing and birthing space. Things like that, for us to get started.”
Once it is up and running, and provided the operation proves financially viable, Spicer imagines Fares will increase both the number of taxis on the waves, as well as the fleet’s service area. Finally giving commuters within the Bedford Basin a regular ferry to the downtown. By then, however, the whole endeavour may have been sold off to new owners.
“We’re not in the taxi business,” says Spicer. “We would like to pioneer it and get it going. We would like somebody who probably has [experience], would like to expand it and has more water knowledge than we do, and would like to take it and run with it eventually, once we get it up and running.”
A year from now, there might be dozens of little vessels crisscrossing the Halifax Harbour. Commuters can bypass bridges, and reducing the number of cars downtown and easing overall traffic congestion. Harbour water taxis are a cheaper, more practical option than the often-proposed “third bridge,” or the unlikely Halifax Harbour tunnel.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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