It costs more to fly from Halifax to Charlottetown than it does for Torontonians to fly to Prince Edward Island.
And try flying from Saint John to Fredericton – the cost is astronomical for a trip that takes only an hour by road.
People may have little alternative by the end of November, when the region’s only large-scale bus service, Acadian Bus Lines, is set to close down after nearly 80 years, regulated out of business, it says, by at least two of the three Maritime provinces.
The owner – Quebec-based Groupe Orléans Express Inc. – says it has lost about $12-million since taking over Acadian in 2004 and can no longer afford to run the bus line, especially along the rural routes, which at times yield only two or three passengers.
Acadian was given exclusive rights to operate on condition that the more profitable routes would subsidize the less profitable ones.
Prince Edward Island has no regulations over the service, but in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, it can take five to eight months to get permission for a fare or route change.
“Unfortunately, when you have regulations that are so stringent, you can’t necessarily react to market demand or the changes within the market,” said Denis Gallant, Acadian’s vice-president, Maritimes.
“The problem with the regulations … it’s an industry that has been in the decline for a number of years [and] you combine both of them and you essentially have your perfect storm.”
About 120 people will lose their jobs when the intercity bus line shuts down.
Politicians, labour leaders and some bus company owners are scrambling to come up with a solution, as losing the service means rural residents will be cut off from travel to the cities for medical appointments or jobs – and even a federal cabinet minister’s wife will have to find alternative transport.
“Nazanin has taken the bus from the airport to New Glasgow a number of times when I have been away or unable to meet her,” Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who represents a rural Nova Scotia riding that will be affected, said of his wife, human rights activist Nazanin Afshin-Jam.
Ridership has been in a steady decline for years, for example, dropping 15.5 per cent in 2009 compared with 2008, according to statistics in a 2010 application from Acadian to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.
It was applying to reduce service between Sydney and Halifax from three trips a day to two, noting that its 51-seat motor coach was carrying an average of 12 people for part of the trip.
Provincial statistics show that in 2009, 171,000 people were riding the buses, down from 500,000 in 1986.
In 2011, 148,000 people were using the Nova Scotia buses.
Nova Scotia’s Transportation Minister, Maurice Smith, who has been talking to his provincial counterparts and vows to have a “regional solution” by Acadian’s close, says it’s easy to blame regulations for the bus line’s troubles, but he doesn’t “buy that necessarily.”
He suggests other factors, including cheaper cars, and easier access to mini-bus or shuttle bus services.
He also cites the fact that Acadian, with its head office in Quebec, is not a Maritime company.
“There is not that local hands-on control that might make some local decisions more sensitive to local issues and local needs,” he says.
The other wrinkle is that the bus line was in a labour dispute for five months last winter.
Workers in PEI and New Brunswick were locked out, and some believe that affected the bus line’s decision.
New Brunswick Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc, who says access to transportation is one of the biggest challenges to economic development in the Maritimes, argues the Harper government mishandled that dispute.
It was quick to act to get Air Canada workers back on the job, but did not intervene with the bus line.
Labour Minister Lisa Raitt explained that it wasn’t an “economic issue of national significance.”
To which Mr. LeBlanc countered that the Harper government’s view of economic development in the Atlantic is a “one-way ticket to Fort McMurray” for the young people and for seniors to remain “trapped in the region.”
Labour leaders such as Rick Clarke, the president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, sent a letter to the three provincial governments calling for a publicly run regional bus service so that “no rural community (or vulnerable group) is held hostage the next time a private company decides it can’t make enough profit.”
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter has ruled that out.
And Mr. Smith is encouraged by the response from officials at private companies, such as Mike Cassidy of PEI’s Trius Tours, who has filed an application to take over from Acadian.
Mr. Cassidy operates charter bus services throughout the Maritimes and says he can run brand-new coaches on 80 per cent of the routes, leaving the other 20 per cent to smaller shuttle or van operators.
“Let’s operate the whole network more efficiently and that’s where you need a main carrier and you need a feeder system,” said Mr. Cassidy, who grew up in Nova Scotia and knows the region well.
“We’re not asking for a subsidy here, we’re not asking for a handout. It should be private. It does not have to be a Crown corporation.”