Cuts loom for Gretna, Algiers Point river ferries

People and vehicles that use two of the three Mississippi River ferries here will soon find services reduced or cut all together unless the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission can find new money to pay for the water-based transportation.

The Gretna ferry will cease operating July 1, and the Algiers Point ferry will see service cuts at the same time due to a lack of funding, Rhett Desselle, assistant secretary of operations for the state Department of Transportation and Development, told the RPC during its regular meeting Tuesday.

For years, Crescent City Connection tolls covered the operation of the Gretna, Algiers Point and Chalmette ferries. That funding ended Jan. 1 as part of state legislation that prohibited toll money from being used to run the vessels. There are some remaining toll dollars dedicated to operating and maintaining the ferries, but they will expire June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The Chalmette ferry, which costs about $3.5 million a year to operate and maintain, will not be affected since the DOTD will operate it with money from a transportation trust fund. Desselle said the state will pay for that ferry because it moves vehicles at a spot on the river where a bridge is needed.

“It’s a challenge,” Desselle said of the issue facing the DOTD and the RPC.

The problem is that fares collected for the Gretna and Algiers Point ferries do not come close to paying for their operation and maintenance.

The Algiers Point boat costs $3.1 million a year to operate and maintain, while it takes in $65,000 in fares each year, according to the DOTD. The Gretna ferry costs $2.3 million a year to operate and does not collect fares, according to the DOTD.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet here,” Desselle said.

With the RPC now handling local oversight of the ferries, Executive Director Walter Brooks said that increased fares for vehicles and new fares for pedestrians could be in the ferries’ futures in an effort to lessen or prevent cuts.

Details, he said, will need to be worked out by an RPC committee that will be formed to find a solution to the problem.

“We’ve got a long way to go. We’re trying to make it happen,” Brooks said. “We’re not going to abandon anybody.”

One solution to the problem, officials have said, would be to privatize the ferries.

However, a request in November for proposals to do that had no takers.

New Orleans City Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson, an RPC member, said that an RPC study and committee might draw more interest since the public and investors have more “faith” in the agency than city and state government.

“No offense — and I can say this since I am local government — but one of the problems is no answer with the RFP (request for proposal) was because the people out there, especially investors, do not have a lot of faith in local or state government as they do in the Regional Planning Commission,” Clarkson said. “I think when it goes back out for an RFP after this study ... that will ensure a good response. Maybe many responses.”