Ferry hours cut as funding dries up

As the sun slowly set over the Mississippi River, Dan Melia stood on the lower deck of the Louis B. Portiere as it cut through the choppy waters.

The quick trip back to Algiers Point from the foot of Canal Street is part of the daily commute for Melia, one of almost 1.2 million trips pedestrians take on the ferry each year. But Melia was keenly aware that the Thursday trip home by boat after a day working in a French Quarter candy shop will, at least for the time being, become a thing of the past.

Starting Monday, the hours of the ferry route will be cut by almost 40 percent, with late night and early morning trips sacrificed to stretch the system’s limited funding until a long-term solution takes shape. In a process that started last year, the boats have been cut off of the Crescent City Connection tolls that almost completely paid for the routes.

Advocates and state officials have now pinned their hopes on a takeover of the system by the New Orleans Regional Transit System. That plan would largely require the ferry system to sustain itself, an essentially unheard of feat in modern Louisiana, where taxpayers were on the hook for almost the entire $20 million it cost to run the eight routes in service last year.

Whether that takeover will happen, and how the system will cover the $3.9 million it now costs to run the Algiers ferries, is in flux. But the future portends an end to what has traditionally been a free ride for pedestrians and the less-used option of using the boats to transport cars across the river.

For now, however, the shorter schedule means problems for those who rely on the system. Melia, like more than half of those who ride the ferries according to a recent survey, depends on the boats to get to and from work. Without the later hours currently offered, Melia may have to pack up and leave Algiers Point.

“Eventually, I’ll have to move from the neighborhood where I’ve lived for six years,” Melia said.

RTA officials have been tight-lipped about their plans for the ferry but are expected to provide a proposal by the fall. A vice president of Veolia, the company that runs the transit system, said earlier this week that fares for pedestrians would have to be part of the eventual plan, though the details are still being worked out.

For riders, paying a few bucks for a trip across the river might not be a dealbreaker. About 68 percent of the people surveyed by Ride New Orleans, a transit advocacy group, recently said they’d be willing to pay to ride the ferry, while only about 10 percent said they would not.

“Fares are absolutely reasonable,” Melia said. “I don’t think anyone I’ve talked to says fares are an unreasonable measure.”

That’s the same stance taken by others seeking to preserve the ferry services.

“We pushed the free ferry about as far as it can go,” said Fay Faron, who heads Friends of the Ferry, a group that plans to push for fares in the interim in hopes of extending service hours.

The Algiers ferry has always been an outlier in the state’s ferry system. Setting it apart from the largely vehicle-oriented boats elsewhere in the state are its largely pedestrian ridership, urban location and its status as one of a handful of ferries that have traditionally drawn their revenue from bridge tolls rather than the whims of the state’s budget process.

The state’s ferry system is largely designed to get motorists across waterways in rural areas without the need for expensive bridges. While alternatives to those systems would require detours of up to 120 miles, motorists traveling from Algiers can simply hop on the Crescent City Connection and be in downtown New Orleans at roughly the same time.

But while the state’s rural routes carry only a handful of pedestrians a year, advocates say the Algiers ferry is a crucial link for residents without easy access to cars.

The Algiers ferry accounts for nearly the entire pedestrian ridership in the state, taking almost seven times more people across the river on foot than it does by car.

At the same time, the Algiers ferry has seen a massive increase in use, with about 300,000 more riders last year than in 2010.

There is no single explanation for the dramatic increase in the Algiers ferry’s ridership in recent years.

The Regional Planning Commission credits better awareness of transit options for boosting the usage of the ferry as well as other public systems. Faron said she believes the transportation department just did a better job of counting the people who were using it already.

But still, the Algiers ferry runs at a substantial deficit, with around $73,000 of its $3.9 million budget coming from the $1 roundtrip fare for motorists.

That’s common for state ferries, which generated only about half a million dollars in fares last year, about 2.5 percent of their total cost.

The costly system, once necessary in a state riddled with waterways, has been gradually scaled back, with only about half the state-run ferries that were in service 15 years ago continuing to run their routes.

Just this year, the state closed the White Castle ferry and was prepared to mothball the route from Edgard to Reserve, though that ferry is now expected to be taken over by the St. John the Baptist Parish government.

The Gretna ferry, which was supposed to remain open until Monday, has been out of service since April due to staffing shortages, and officials gave up on trying to restart the route.

Some officials have held out hope that service could be restored for special events, such as Gretna Fest, but its uncertain whether that will fit into the future plans.

What’s unusual is that a dedicated stream of toll money from the CCC made up that gap, subsidizing not only the Algiers route but the Chalmette and Gretna ferries as well. That ended last year, when lawmakers severed the connection between the bridge and the boats as they prepared for a referendum that would ultimately end tolls on the bridge.

At the time, the Legislature told the transportation department to privatize the route but found no companies willing to step in and take over.

In the aftermath, lawmakers this year put in place a plan that kept full funding for the Chalmette ferry — now paid for by the Department of Transportation and Development — but closed the service to Gretna and looked to offer up the Algiers ferry to the RTA.

While the transit system works on its own proposal, the ferry remains in the hands of the state. While transition money was provided through a variety of sources it is not anticipated to cover the costs of keeping the boats running full time, leading to a dramatic reduction in hours.

“We’re maintaining some service,” said state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers, who authored the legislation allowing for the takeover and providing some funding. “It’s less than optimal and I recognize that completely. It’s not where I want to be. I look at this as a transition period.”

Heitmeier, who worked as a deckhand on the ferries as a teenager, described the service as integral part of the West Bank’s history, culture and economic development. Not only do the boats bring tourists, shops and restaurant patrons to the West Bank, but they allow workers to commute, helping bolster the real estate market in Algiers.

Despite the massive gap in funding, the route could still prove to have some upsides for RTA. Lawmakers have set aside $4 million to upgrade the boats, an amount that balloons to $20 million when federal matching funds are added into the mix.

Replacing the aging, inefficient ferries now running the route could lower its cost, particularly if the system opts to move to lighter passenger-only ferries.

Bills by Heitmeier and others tap into a variety of revenue streams to help pay for that transition. Those include money from license plates for trucks and trailers in Orleans Parish, the use of unclaimed toll money left over from the CCC, a dedication of $1.4 million for two years and an optional check-off box on income tax returns that would let people donate to the ferries directly.

Heitmeier expressed hope that once the transit system steps in, the ferries will be secure.

“We want to make sure this happens and this is going to be around for generations to come,” Heitmeier said.

But Rachel Heiligman, executive director of Ride New Orleans, described the ferries’ current predicament as a “rocky foundation to build on” and said her organization would have preferred a more comprehensive solution out of this year’s legislative session.

“We would have preferred to see a stronger commitment come out of the legislature,” Heiligman said. “But again, we’re grateful, we understand its a difficult environment to work in.”

For riders, ownership and potential fares may come as a secondary concern to just keeping them open.

Anthony Nichols, riding across the Mississippi River last week to visit his daughter on the east bank, said he hadn’t heard of the schedule changes or plans to have RTA run the service. But Nichols, who takes the ferry to work and occasionally just takes his grandchildren out on the boat for weekend excursions on the river, said the system is so well embedded into the city’s fabric that any reductions won’t last long.

“When all’s said and done, once they cut and see how it works, I think they’re going to come around and extend the hours,” he said.