Portland has firmly closed the door on hosting ferry service to Canada.

The city last month rejected a last-minute request from Bay Ferries to allow it to operate a ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, this year.

Bay Ferries announced in 2018 that it would relocate operations to Bar Harbor after serving Portland for three seasons. The company’s lease for city-owned waterfront property in Portland expired at the end of 2018. But because of the recent 35-day federal government shutdown, Bay Ferries’ negotiations with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to set up screening in Bar Harbor were put on hold indefinitely.

Despite the setback, Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said the company is committed to offering ferry service between Maine and Nova Scotia this year. He expects there will be service operating from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, by early June.

In late January, almost five weeks after the shutdown started, MacDonald contacted Portland, asking to again lease a 3.4-acre area in the city’s East End, which the service had previously used to line up cars and passengers for the ferry.

The city responded promptly, saying space already was taken.


“I regret to inform you that the city is unable to accommodate your request because of public safety concerns related to use of the queuing area this year,” Portland Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said in a Jan. 25 email to MacDonald.

The city plans to use the queuing area as a temporary public parking area to compensate for the loss of parking in three nearby lots because of construction. Private developers intend to move ahead with an office building and parking garage on Fore Street, a hotel and headquarters of Vets First Choice on nearby Hancock and Mountfort streets.

Portland also will build an extension to Thames Street this summer, and Casco Bay Lines is expanding its building on the Maine State Pier, encompassing the area the ferry used to embark passengers.

“There are an extraordinarily high number of public and private sector construction projects, this year, surrounding Ocean Gateway and the Maine State Pier which impact use of Commercial/Thames Street and the queuing area,” Mitchell wrote. “This activity level will not allow the queuing area to be available this year to support the 2019 ferry season.”

Once Bay Ferries decided not to renew its lease, Portland moved immediately to look for other ways to generate revenue, Mitchell said in an interview Thursday. To that end, the city decided to berth smaller cruise ships on the former ferry pier, and to book events in the Ocean Gateway building closest to the water that could not be used during ferry service because of Customs and Border Protection rules.

Allowing the ferry back now doesn’t make sense from “a public safety standpoint, and a practical standpoint and a revenue standpoint,” Mitchell said.


MacDonald, in an email to Mitchell, said Bay Ferries was surprised, shocked and disappointed by the city’s decision. Even though the government shutdown ended Jan. 25, MacDonald was uncertain what, if anything could be accomplished in the three weeks Congress and White House have to reach a deal and avert another shutdown.

In an email Thursday, MacDonald said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection was making every effort to assist Bar Harbor to keep the project moving forward, despite the challenge posed by the shutdown.

The town of Bar Harbor this week closed on the purchase of the ferry terminal Bay Ferries wants to use this year. Bay Ferries intends to sign a lease agreement for the terminal within a week, Town Manager Cornell Knight said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:


Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.