The international ferry’s best year in Portland will likely be its last.

Almost 50,200 people took the direct, high-speed Cat ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, this year, a 20 percent increase from 2017 and the highest passenger count since Canadian firm Bay Ferries Ltd. began operating the ferry three years ago.

The city of Portland earned almost $153,000 in passenger and vehicle fees, about $34,000 more than the year before.

But even as the ferry’s passenger numbers climb, it is preparing to leave Portland for good.

In October, the Bar Harbor town council agreed to lease a town-owned ferry terminal to Bay Ferries. The company said it intends to invest $3 million to improve the disused terminal and restart service from Nova Scotia in 2019.

But a month later, Bay Ferries hasn’t signed a lease with Bar Harbor and still has the option to stay in Portland another year.

“The council authorized me to sign the lease, but (Bay Ferries) is still working on their due diligence and has not made a decision yet,” Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight said in an email. There is no deadline for Bay Ferries to sign an agreement with the town, he added.

DEADLINE EXTENDED TWICE

In an email, Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said the company had not made a final decision about moving the service.

“The city of Portland has been very accommodating in agreeing to extend the time for potential lease renewal in Portland while this process is ongoing,” he said.

The company has until Nov. 30 to decide whether it wants to renew its lease for the city-owned ferry terminal at Ocean Gateway, on the eastern end of Commercial Street.

An Oct. 15 deadline has been extended twice at Bay Ferries’ request.

“They have been requesting time extensions, and we have agreed to those time extensions to support a smooth transition to Bar Harbor,” Portland Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said. Whether Bay Ferries would be granted another extension after the end of the month “would need to be discussed further,” he said.

Bay Ferries pays about $250,000 to lease the 3.4-acre parcel next to the Maine State Pier. The property is almost entirely taken up with a customs screening and vehicle waiting area.

If the lease isn’t renewed, Portland has big plans for the property, a potentially choice piece of real estate at the edge of the booming India Street neighborhood.

Preliminary city plans show a new pier for cruise ships jutting from the current ferry terminal, and the city has postponed discussion of redeveloping Portland Ocean Terminal at the state pier until Bay Ferries decides to stay or leave.

Although there are long-term ideas about how to use the property, the immediate future will be left up to the city council, Mitchell said.

“I would expect that would be a top priority in 2019 for the city,” he said.

COMPANY HIT CUSTOMS SNAG

Bay Ferries started sailing to Portland in 2016, after taking over a Nova Scotia government contract from the financially troubled Nova Star ferry. Bay Ferries ran a similar ferry between Portland, Bar Harbor and Canada until it was discontinued in 2009.

The company was optimistic about the service, but has faced recent headwinds in Portland. Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it would stop screening at the Portland terminal in 2018 unless $7 million in upgrades was put into the ferry terminal.

Portland officials said they could not pay for the improvements, but the ferry was able to run this year after Bay Ferries and the Nova Scotia government invested $1.5 million in the terminal.

Around the same time news surfaced of the U.S. Customs mandate, Bay Ferries began floating the idea of relocating the ferry to Bar Harbor.

 

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