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All aboard for better service: Tristan Cleveland on why Halifax needs to keep frequent ferries

Metro's columnist says both downtown areas benefit by having more people using the popular ferry service.

A man fishing on the Dartmouth waterfront.

Staff / Metro file photo

A man fishing on the Dartmouth waterfront.

Keeping high-frequency ferry service will more than pay for itself if it helps downtown Dartmouth succeed. In fact, we should invest more, to tie Portland Street to downtown Halifax with beautiful, bustling streets.

During the redecking of the Macdonald Bridge, Halifax increased ferry frequency to every 15 minutes throughout much of the day. The service costs $550,000 a year, but already, it nearly pays for itself.

In the 2016 budget year, there were 440,000 more trips on the ferry than 2014. Dartmouth Coun. Sam Austin tells me about $338,000 more was paid in the terminals alone, but that doesn’t include anyone who got on a bus elsewhere and transferred, or anyone who bought a monthly pass.

It also appears - though the numbers are not yet in - that ridership is staying high despite the bridge having reopened.

“I am thoroughly convinced we’ve changed habits,” Austin says.

And why not? Getting to take a boat ride on our big, blue harbour every single day is an awfully nice way to get to work. So nice, this ferry may just help encourage development that would more than pay for the service.

King’s Wharf could soon add 1,500 homes. The Downtown Dartmouth Plan is due this summer, and it will open underused land to infill development. It will also pave the way for high-density towers throughout Dartmouth Cove.

That we can offer thousands of new customers and employees high-frequency, rapid transit to downtown Halifax for only half a million dollars is one heck of a deal. For comparison, it will cost tens of millions to connect commuter rail to Bedford, and that for six or seven trips a day.

According to StatsCan and PVSC data, development in downtown Dartmouth will cost less, pay more, and create less traffic than if it happened further out.

The tax assessment in walkable places in the Halifax region like Dartmouth — where over a third of people walk, bike, or take transit to work — is four times higher per square foot on average. And yet, according to numbers from a study I recently worked on, these places also have about one-half the length of road per person, massively reducing the cost of maintaining roads and servicing homes.

Investing in rapid transit isn’t a cost. It’s precisely how this city becomes wealthier. We should spend more, in fact, to create a strong connection between the two downtowns, so both sides of the harbour will better support each other’s growth.

A centrepiece of the Halifax Downtown Plan is to connect the ferry terminal with the town clock by lining George Street with parks and greenery and turning Carmichael into a shared street. The idea was called the Grand Promenade, and it’s time we dust it off.

On the Dartmouth side, Alderney Landing badly needs a facelift. Combined, such streetscaping improvements could make the two downtowns start to feel like a single whole, creating two times as much reason for anyone to visit or move to our core.

We should build other transit projects, but first council should vote to support the rapid transit we already have, the one that puts a beautiful ride on the ocean at the centre of our city.

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