RTA to discuss $2 fare for Algiers ferry on Thursday

A trip across the Mississippi River on the Algiers-Canal Street ferry would cost passengers $2 each way under a proposal by the company that manages the Regional Transit System as part of a planned takeover of the three New Orleans-area ferries.

Even with a fare for the 1.2 million riders who now travel by ferry for free each year, along with additional charges for vehicles on the Chalmette ferry, the system will likely require additional subsidies to be financially viable, RTA General Manager Justin Augustine said Monday. That would include both short-term funding for new ferries and other improvements, as well as a long-term infusion of public money to help defray the cost of their operation.

“I think that everybody has to understand the cost to manage and operate these services are predicated on our combined ability to garner public support for a fare structure that can help sustain the level of service that’s prudent,” said Augustine, an employee of Veolia, the company that runs the day-to-day operations of RTA. “Any additional services will be contingent on our ability to raise additional funding for that operation.”

While ferry supporters have argued a fare is necessary to sustain the system, some said Monday the amount under consideration might be too high for some who use the boats to commute from homes on the West Bank to jobs downtown.

“I think $2 is too high for our population,” said Fay Faron, founder of Friends of the Ferry.

The RTA board will hear details about Veolia’s proposal Thursday at a 2 p.m. meeting at RTA’s headquarters at 2817 Canal St.

In addition to the new charges for pedestrians on the Algiers ferry, the proposed new fare structure will also increase rates for vehicles on the Chalmette ferry. Motorists are now charged $1 per vehicle but under the proposal that would increase to $2 for a vehicle and driver, plus an additional dollar for every passenger.

Augustine said officials are still evaluating whether to continue vehicle service on the Algiers route and have not yet determined how that would affect the fares. Switching to a pedestrian-only ferry on that route would allow the company to cut costs by buying cheaper, more efficient boats. Possible improvements to landings and barges are also being contemplated by the agency, he said.

“If you think about the economic impact of what those ferries are doing to that side of the river, its a tremendous asset to the businesses and residents on the West Bank,” Augustine said. Under the proposal, the Gretna ferry would remain out of service except during special events like Mardi Gras and various festivals, Augustine said.

The uncertainty over the fate of the ferries began last year, when they were divorced from the Crescent City Connection funding that had paid for them as part of the lead-up to a referendum over whether to extend tolls on the bridge. That referendum ultimately resulted in the end of the tolls. Officials initially sought to privatize the ferry, but found no firms interested in running the system.

That prompted a spate of legislation this year aimed at providing short-term funding for the system as well authorizing a public agency, such as RTA, to take over its operation. That deal includes state funds that, combined with federal money, could provide about $20 million to buy new boats and additional money to subsidize their operations until a deal was finalized, a process that is expected to take until the end of September.

But that money was not enough to fully fund the ferries, prompting the state Department of Transportation and Development to cut the Algiers route’s hours and officially discontinue service to Gretna on July 1. That was greeted with calls to put new fares in place by supporters of the system.

“This is an artery of the city and you can’t just cut it off,” Faron said. Ride New Orleans Executive Director Rachel Heiligman echoed Faron’s concerns that a $2 fare might be too much for lower-income workers who rely on the ferries to get across the river..

Both she and Faron suggested some sort of monthly pass similar to the one RTA already uses for its buses, which would provide a discount for those who regularly use the service.

Some sort of pass is being considered but the details have not yet been worked out, Augustine said.

The RTA is expected to set a public hearing date on the new fares on Thursday, the first step necessary to raise rates. After that hearing, the board would be able to sign off on the new fares and send them to the New Orleans City Council for its approval.

State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, said he was encouraged that RTA was ready to talk about fares.

“This is a positive sign that we can move in a direction,” said Arnold, one of the lawmakers involved in this year’s ferry legislation. But the takeover will likely not be the last time state officials have to deal with the ferry system. With the need for additional state funding, Augustine said he expects there will be more discussions in Baton Rouge.

“Clearly, we’re going back to the legislative process next year,” Augustine said.