UPDATED: Kingston cruise operators call on PM to intervene during ongoing closure of LaSalle Causeway

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines LaSalle Causeway

Kingston cruise line operators say they plan to increase pressure on the federal government as the ongoing closure of the LaSalle Causeway puts tourism revenues and jobs on the line.

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines president Jason Clark said he has written a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requesting intervention in what Clark says is becoming a dire situation for the local marine tourism operators.

“I ask you to take immediate action to ensure government is part of the solution instead of the problem,” Clark wrote in the letter sent to the prime minister’s office Wednesday afternoon. 

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At issue is the LaSalle Causeway, which has been closed since March 30 undergoing repairs, effectively stranding a number of cruise ships in the inner harbour.

Part of the causeway, which connects downtown Kingston with its eastern suburbs at the mouth of the Cataraqui River, is the Bascule Bridge, which is a lift bridge that allows boats through. Earlier this month, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) said a steel truss on the bridge was damaged during construction on March 30. 

PSPC has advised that it is working on repairs through a phased approach. The first phase will strengthen elements of the bridge and prepare for the repair of the damaged element. The second phase will involve repairing the damage to the diagonal steel element and strengthening it, PSPC said.

Last week, PSPC said the causeway would remain closed for an additional eight to 10 weeks.

Cruise operators say the timeline is putting millions of dollars of earnings and hundreds of jobs at risk.

“We have sailed into a perfect storm of bureaucratic bungling and ministerial apathy,” Clark said Thursday in a news release.

His company operates the Canadian Empress, which provides tours to Montreal, Quebec City and the National Capital Region. The 60-passenger overnight cruise ship is currently moored in the inner harbour.

The Empress would have sailed its first cruise of the season this weekend, but the cruise line has been forced to cancel, representing a loss of $180,000 in revenue, said human resources and marketing coordinator Daniel Beals.

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines operates 30 overnight cruises during the summer season and employs 30 crew members, and entered the season 95 per cent booked. Mother’s Day weekend is usually the kick-off for the busiest time of the year.

But since the Empress is unable to leave the harbour, the company has had to cancel the first three cruises, reimbursing hundreds of thousands of dollars to ticket-holders. If the closure continues for the estimated eight to 10 weeks, Beals said St. Lawrence Cruise Lines will be looking at a loss of $1.5 million in sales.

“We will likely be forced to cancel the fourth and fifth (cruises) because we want to give our passengers time to change plans,” said Beals. “But we just don’t know what will happen in the next few weeks, so we have to make those judgment calls weeks in advance to give the passengers enough notice.”

If the causeway doesn’t reopen until mid-summer, Beals said the “best the company can hope for” is to break even, and all hope of profitability will be gone. If the closure were to continue further into the season, the cruise line would be operating at a net loss.

“We would be able to get through the season, but next fall we wouldn’t be able to put work into the ship. This past winter we redid bathrooms and renovations, but we wouldn’t be able to invest back into the business, do advertising that we want to do …” he said. “We’d make it through the season, but that loss would still continue to show up.”

Also trapped in the harbour are the Island Belle, a 160-passenger sightseeing vessel, and the Island Star, a 170-passenger dinner boat, which are operated by Kingston 1000 Islands Cruise Lines.

Both cruise lines proposed a possible solution to the issue in a white paper dated April 18, which involves removing the eastern concrete span of the causeway, allowing the cruise ships to pass through and resume tourism operations.

The whitepaper requested that the federal government pay for a crane to remove the span and lift small boats out of the harbour, as well as replace the revenues that have been lost as a result of the closure.

Both cruise lines have said they are poised to take legal action.

“We do not want to sue the federal government for damages, but we believe we will win,” said Eric Ferguson, general manager of Kingston Destination Group, which operates 1000 Islands Cruise Lines, in an interview with OBJ. “But it will take a long time and the damage is already caused.

“It’s better for everyone for them to replace revenues so we can give our team reassurance that operations will continue,” he said. “If they don’t do that, we’ll have to take proportionate action.”

If the causeway remains closed and cruise ships are unable to leave the harbour for the estimated eight to 10 weeks, Ferguson said Kingston 1000 Islands Cruise Lines will have to cancel more than 300 cruises, impacting more than 25,000 passengers, and cancel more than 30 private events that are currently booked. This puts millions of dollars of earnings at stake, he said.

“The impacts have already begun because people are planning trips in May, planning Victoria Day weekend, and we can offer them a fraction of the inventory,” said Ferguson. “We have access to less than one square kilometre of harbour, when we should have all of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.”

This weekend would have been the start of the tourism season being in full swing, Ferguson said, but with two-thirds of his operations stranded, he said the closure has been “catastrophic.”

“We have nights in June with all three boats chartered, where we’ve booked business. It’s already sold, deposits paid, and the federal government is unacceptably saying our business can’t meet that commitment, even though they have the tools to work on the problem and are dismissing those solutions with an apathy to our business that is unconscionable,” Ferguson said. 

“What we’re seeing is that our situation, this important piece of infrastructure that is tourism in Kingston, is being deprioritized as they proceed incredibly slowly and they write off possible solutions.”

Ferguson is concerned about more than cruise ships; his company also operates Kingston Trolley Tours, which offers hop-on, hop-off trolley tours across the city. The trolleys follow a route that is half on the east side of the river and half on the west. With the causeway closed, Ferguson said the six trolleys are only operating on half of the regular route. 

“Our business is a part of this community. These jobs are linked to a level of activity that depends on tourism,” said Ferguson. “So we have a tremendous amount of responsibility to our community and our passengers and to our staff.”

His team, which consists of about 150 seasonal employees, relies on a short but busy tourism season and the ongoing closure is causing job insecurity.

Beals said his cruise line has committed to paying crew members their expected wages even while the Empress isn’t sailing. 

“We’re doing that because of our own sense of what’s right. It’s not their fault that this is happening, but we cannot sustain that indefinitely,” he explained. “Sometime in the next few weeks, we will have to lay off a part of our workforce, probably up to two-thirds, which is so disheartening.

“A lot of them are young workers and they rely on the busy season, so it’s very difficult,” he continued. “That’s the cost that’s paid by individuals, not by the company, and it has an impact on our community in that way, too.”

The situation is “not dissimilar” to the pandemic, Beals said, aside from one key difference.

“The pandemic happened to everyone and this is only a few companies taking the hit and there’s no urgency to fix it and certainly no plan for reimbursement for the loss,” Beals said. “We’ll probably have to scratch and claw and who knows how long that will take?”

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