OCT. 28 - 29th harbor testing of the "whaling city express"




New ferry’s fast, smooth but . . .


Editor’s note: Columnist Peter Duffy joined several hundred Nova Scotians recently to ride the Whaling City Express, an American fast ferry visiting Halifax as part of the municipality’s study into providing a similar service here.


IN LESS than a minute, the Bedford waterfront is far behind us.

Effortlessly, this sleek, double-hulled American ferry is up to almost 55 kilometres per hour. Behind us, we’re leaving not so much a wake as an aquatic vapour trail across the calm waters of Bedford Basin.

It’s exhilarating, standing here in the cramped stern area, watching familiar landmarks go whizzing by. And talk about smooth. Even though this aluminum vessel’s two 1,400-horsepower diesels are propelling us along four times faster than the regular Halifax ferries, there’s no lurching or bouncing around.

This is one s-i-l-k-y ride.

A few feet away, beneath the fluttering Stars and Stripes, Yvonne Reader of Bedford is gazing astern. Like a lot of people aboard today, she’s wondering if the surging wake will damage the shoreline.

As we reach the huge arch of the MacKay Bridge, she starts to smile. “I think it’s going to be negligible,” she murmurs. (She’s right. The captain tells me later that initial tests suggest this Australian-designed ferry would produce no more wash than any other harbour traffic.)

Two of Yvonne’s neighbours, Nancy Mackay and Heidi Eggli, appear on deck.

“It’s wonderful,” Nancy announces. “I’d go into town more often.”

“I definitely hope it’ll pass,” says Heidi.

Yvonne pats the railing. “We’ve decided, if the government doesn’t buy it, we’re going to take up a collection.”

Leaving the three friends to enjoy the breeze, I wander into the busy passenger cabin and study a large U.S. Coast Guard chart of Massachusetts. It shows somewhere called Buzzard’s Bay. Staring more closely, I recognize New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard, this ferry’s normal run.

I ask crewman Greg Huba about the vessel’s name. “Whaling City, where’s that?”

It’s the nickname for New Bedford, he says. “Remember Herman Melville and Moby Dick?”

Light begins to dawn. “Oh, you mean, as in hunting for whales?” He nods.

The decor inside this big cabin is impressive, especially compared to the stark, unyielding features aboard our regular harbour ferries.

For one thing, all seats are padded and come with arm rests. They’re covered in rich blue upholstery that matches the carpets.

The seats are arranged in twos and threes, like those on an airplane. A number of them are facing each other across large tables. I look around, idly wondering which one actor Bill Murray sat in. A crew member was telling me that the movie star once sailed on this very ferry. There’s even a decent-sized snack bar at one end, although it’s not open this morning. With its banks of tall, smoked-glass windows, this feels more like being aboard a mini cruise ship than a work-a-day ferry.

Soon, we’ve reached the apex of our ride. Just 20 minutes after leaving Bedford, we’re turning slowly abreast of Georges Island to start the return trip.

Mayor Peter Kelly is with us today, asking what people think of the ride. He’s getting smiles and nods.

He emerges from the crowd. “Some very positive feedback,” he says happily. “Everyone’s asking when and how much.”

He asks for my impression of this morning’s ride. I tell him I think it’s great. “But . . .”

The mayor’s smile fades. “But?”

“But I’m not sure I’d use it, even though I live in Bedford.”

I admit to being one of those people hopelessly addicted to their cars. I try to explain how comforting I find it, not to mention downright handy, to have my vehicle with me at all times.

“Forget fast ferries,” I suggest. “How about widening the Bedford Highway instead?”

The mayor points me towards the water speeding by outside. “Look out there,” he commands. “We don’t have to pave it; we don’t have to salt it; we don’t have to plow it. It’s there, and it always will be!”

I nod. “Yes, I know. But I also know, when I leave home on dark mornings, all nice and snug in my car, it’s going to take an awful lot to make me swing left towards a ferry terminal instead of my usual right-hand turn towards downtown. Especially if it’s cold, or wet, or snowing, or . . .”

Frowning, the mayor walks quietly away.

I feel like running after him and telling him not to worry, that I’m probably the odd man out.

Or am I?

( pduffy@herald.ca)

Peter Duffy appears Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Time to make waves with harbour transportation ideas


DOES TRANSIT have to involve wheels? And, if the answer is no, is there any chance Halifax could direct some of its anticipated federal transit cash towards a local version of that fancy high-speed ferry that visited here on the weekend?

It only makes sense, as former Halifax CAO George McLellan often said, to use the underutilized harbour as a means to alleviate the commuting woes of this growing capital city.

The Whaling City Express roared into town from Massachusetts as Halifax ran a series of feasibility trials on Friday and Saturday between Bedford and the Halifax downtown. At around 15 minutes a run, the catamaran ferry predictably wowed passengers and politicians alike.

Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly, who has been frustrated in his desire to see commuter rail serve a similar traffic corridor, has picked up on the high-speed ferry theme, noting last week that the harbour should be used to “unite, rather than divide” the growing Halifax region.

Obviously, many of the residents who would benefit from such a ferry service would come from Kelly’s home turf of Bedford.

Still, given the increasing development focus the city has placed on Bedford south, to say nothing of the mind-numbingly slow rush-hour commute on the overused Bedford Highway, investing in such a service is justified.

Much of the debate at city council will surely come down to cost. City transportation planners have estimated the capital costs for implementing a two-boat, high-speed ferry service, including docking and parking facilities, would be about $15 million.

There is not yet any indication how much commuter fares would cost, but it’s likely many folks would choose the relative comfort of a relaxing and quick boat ride downtown over the white-knuckle exasperation of the available roadways. Keeping costs in line for daily use, however, would be critical to the success of such a service.

All the same, what’s not to like about the ferry, given miserable alternatives such as the Bedford Highway, Magazine Hill or the Bayers Road-Connaught Avenue crunch at the end of the Bicentennial Highway?

Brian Taylor, the city’s senior adviser on regional transit planning, told The Chronicle Herald’s John Gillis that a high-speed ferry service could be co-ordinated with bus service from communities near Bedford, delivering passengers to a Bedford waterfront location for the trip downtown.

The city’s 25-year regional plan calls for a high-speed ferry service between Halifax and Bedford. Well, hopefully it won’t take that long.

If council agrees soon to make the investment, a ferry service could be operating within two years.

It is encouraging to note that with just two days of test runs, hundreds of people showed up for a look. On Saturday morning alone, about 400 people took the time to try out the fast ferry. If preliminary interest is this high, imagine the potential daily demand for such a service.

There will never be enough millions to go around to address the shortcomings of roadways intended to provide access to the peninsula, which, despite growth trends elsewhere, is still the No. 1 workplace destination in metro Halifax. In an age where higher gas prices are supposedly here to stay, a ferry service such as this one makes sense.

And if it works on the Bedford-downtown run, who is to say it cannot be eventually expanded to better serve other Halifax communities and their neighbours?

Future transportation planning is supposed to be about convincing people to leave their cars at home with alternatives that are fast, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

This type of ferry certainly seems to fit the bill.


Marilla Stephenson’s column appears Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday an Saturday.