The government of New Brunswick currently maintains 13 ferries running on nine different routes running throughout the southern half of the province. Some of these routes connect islands to the mainland whilst the others connect communities across bodies of water, most prominently the Saint John River. For the sake of livelihood ferries that connect to islands are an absolute necessity for those that live on the islands and those traveling to them, either for work or personal or touristic reasons.
It’s important to make the distinction to what should be considered “vital” ferries: These islands would not be accessible by vehicle otherwise.
Six of the thirteen ferries are used on four different routes connecting Islands:
Grand Manan (two ferries)
Fundy Isles (two ferries)
White Head Island
The remaining seven ferries run on five different routes traversing the Saint John River:
Westfield (two ferries)
Gondola Point (two ferries)
This is a reduction in ferry service in the province following the provincial government’s decision in 2016 to remove the Gagetown ferry service which operated between Gagetown and Lower Jemseg crossing the Saint John River. The northernmost ferry on the system, it was located roughly 15km south of the nearest river crossing bridge (Jemseg-Coytown), which is Trans-Canada Highway Route 2. The ferry immediately served the Village of Gagetown (2011 Census population of 698) along with the nearby communities of Queenstown and Lower Jemseg.
When the Gagetown Ferry service was axed in February the province announced savings of “about $5 Million” on what they called the lowest ridership ferry in the province. It’s proximity to a nearby river crossing was another reason for its elimination.
The distance north to the nearest river crossing from the former Gagetown Ferry site is approximately 15km and provides a highway, grade-separated crossing via bridge. The nearest river crossing to the south would be the Evandale Ferry in Evandale, which is a 30km drive (roughly 20-25 minutes). The Trans-Canada crossing to the north connects to a river crossing in Cambridge-Narrows further to the northeast, allowing access to Eastern Grand Lake and to communities located on Washdemoak Lake. The crossing to the south in Evandale provides access to another ferry crossing to the Southeast crossing Belleisle Bay.
As previously noted on this blog, the rural population of New Brunswick is deteriorating – and it’s deterioration will only quicken in future years. This future deterioration is due in part to rural areas in New Brunswick having a higher median age and higher percentage of senior citizens (persons aged 65+). Gagetown Ferry predominantly served this rural population.
Gagetown ferry is located in Queens County, which is New Brunswick’s oldest county by median age (51.3) along with having New Brunswick’s highest percentage of persons 65 or older (24.40%). The population of Queens has declined by 12.3% between 1991 and 2011, dropping from 12,519 to 11,086 in that timeframe. Queens County’s share of NB’s total population has declined from 1.73% in 1991 to 1.48% in 2011. This trend is assumed to continue with the 2016 Census numbers which are to be released in roughly six months time.
StatsCan’s estimates numbers don’t provide a prettier picture for the area. StatsCan estimates a 2015 population for Queens County of 10,415, a decline of over 600 residents in five years. For the sake of this exercise it appears as though the area immediately surrounding the Gagetown Ferry’s former location is becoming less and less populated, thus rendering the ferry less and less feasible from a future ridership perspective.
[Queens County actually encompasses all of Grand Lake including the communities of Minto and Chipman further north which provide for a bump in the population despite their relative distance from the Ferry’s location. For the sake of this article i’m using the county, but my Municipal Subregions could also be used. In this instance, the immediately-served area of South Queens has a population of under 3,000 in 2011]
With these numbers in mind is there the possibility that potential money invested in a future Gagetown Ferry would be good return on investment? Tourist numbers are cited as a reason why the Ferry should maintain operation, but tourists who are driving to this area should already be accustomed to driving long-ish distances and shouldn’t mind driving the extra 20/30km in either direction for an alternative river crossing.
Would residents in the areas served directly by the former Gagetown ferry be willing to pay a toll to cross, to perhaps provide some sort of revenue stream for their operation? I have a feeling there are not enough local residents to supply enough revenue for the ferry to operate unless the provincial government covered some of the costs.
In 2009, when the Graham Liberals were threatening to remove the Gagetown Ferry, they offered that the Gagetown Ferry could stay in operation if the local residents operated it. In this scenario, the only way this would be feasible would be if the local parishes and local service districts amalgamated with the Village of Gagetown, granting themselves more control over their local area and perhaps taking on the onus of operating their own ferry separate from the provincial government. As it stands, the province runs ferries, which means taxpayers from all over the province are on the hook for a local service in a rural area with declining population and traffic. How sympathetic is the average person in Moncton, Miramichi, or Edmundston going to be?
At least from a statistical point of view it appears that the business case for a ferry is declining as the local population declines, and it’s entirely feasible that the government’s removal of the ferry service was a wise one in the long run so long as the expenditures saved in the process are worth the reduction in immediate access to local residents. It’s always tough to see services like these reduced, but with nearby alternative crossings and a declining potential userbase it’s difficult to argue against.