Ferry fares rising

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --    The Algiers ferry crosses the Mississippi River on its way to Canal Street on Friday, June 28, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Algiers ferry crosses the Mississippi River on its way to Canal Street on Friday, June 28, 2013.

Fare increases on the Algiers and Chalmette ferries won final approval at the New Orleans City Council on Thursday, meaning the end of free rides for pedestrians and a doubling of the cost for vehicles.

The future of ferry service and how to pay for it has been under debate for more than a year. After the state decided to get out of the ferry business and sever it from the Crescent City Connection tolls that used to subsidize the service, local officials have been scrambling for a way to plug the funding gap.

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, which will take over operating the ferry service in October, ultimately decided that it would have to ask passengers to help defray costs, despite objections from residents who felt the hike was too much for commuters with modest incomes.

Under the new fare structure, approved unanimously by the council, pedestrians and those in vehicles will pay $2, where pedestrians used to pay nothing and vehicles only $1.

The RTA will also offer a monthly pass for $65, plus various package deals that include bus and streetcar access.

The council signed off on the new fares without debate or outcry on Thursday, much of the discussion having already taken place during a public hearing held by the RTA earlier this month.

But Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, paused before the vote to again criticize state officials for dropping the ferry operation after failing to draw any private bidders willing to take it over.

“I think it’s not good public policy,” she said. “Our state has chosen to believe that transportation is only cars and streets.”

Palmer added that no one on the council is happy about hiking fares, but given the loss of toll revenue, “This is not a choice of fares or no fares; this is a choice of ferries or no ferries.”

State figures show the Algiers ferry, which handles about 1.2 million pedestrians and almost 182,000 vehicles a year, costs about $3.9 million to operate.

The Chalmette ferry, with about 7,500 pedestrians and 509,000 vehicles, costs about $3.5 million.

The new fares will kick in when the RTA takes over operations on Oct. 1, but the agency’s general manager, Justin Augustine, could not say exactly when full service will be restored on the Algiers ferry, except to say that it should happen some time in the fall.

When state officials cut off funding from tolls, they put a dedicated funding stream in place for the Chalmette ferry but not Algiers, which had to cut operating hours beginning in July.

The Gretna ferry shut down altogether, and officials have no plans yet to bring it back, save perhaps for special events.