Residents want low fares for Canal Street ferry

Algiers residents spoke Monday night about their frustrations with the Canal Street ferry’s reduced hours and concerns about what they described as the high cost of commuting across the river under a takeover plan proposed by the Regional Transit System.

Those criticisms came at a packed public hearing on RTA’s proposed fare structure for the Mississippi River ferries. Hundreds of residents filled the New Orleans City Council’s chambers, with dozens calling for a more affordable option for residents who use the ferries on a daily basis.

Under RTA’s plan pedestrians who now ride the ferries for free would pay a base fare of $2 each way or $75 for a monthly pass. That’s a significant cost for many who use the boats daily, residents said.

“We’re ready to pay, but we want a reasonable fee,” Karen Smoyer said.

Throughout the discussion, residents called for a cheaper option for those who regularly use the ferry, possibly funded by increasing the cost for tourists and other infrequent riders. A number of other suggestions, including selling advertising and naming rights on the boats, also cropped up during the discussion.

The fare proposed by Veolia, the company that runs the day-to-day operations of RTA, has been criticized as being too high for the large number of people, particularly service industry workers, who live in Algiers and work in downtown New Orleans. At the same time, businesses and workers have said reduced hours the ferry has been operating under for the past month has kept tourists from staying on the West Bank or even visiting the Algiers Point neighborhood. State lawmakers eliminated the ferry’s traditional funding source last year when they determined they should no longer be paid for using tolls from the Crescent City Connection. That move, made in advance of a referendum that eventually eliminated the tolls, was intended to result in the privatization of the New Orleans area ferries.

However, no private companies stepped up to take over the system, prompting lawmakers this year to authorize RTA to take over their operations and providing temporary funding to keep them running until the transition. The amount of money provided, however, was not enough to keep the Algiers ferry running at its traditional schedule, forcing the Department of Transportation and Development to make significant cutbacks to its hours of operation.

RTA’s proposal would also involve a takeover of the Chalmette ferry and the Gretna ferry, though the latter would only run during special events.

The Chalmette and Algiers ferries cost about $8.8 million a year to run. The state’s annual funding now stands at $6 million.

RTA General Manager Justine Augustine said the RTA fare structure is designed to make up that gap for the two or more years it will take to get new boats, which would be cheaper to operate and maintain. Those boats would be at least partially paid for through about $20 million in state and federal funding.

“The current ferry service, that we all utilize today, is financially unstable and that’s why we’re here today,” Augustine said.

The RTA board is scheduled to vote on a fare structure at 10 a.m. on Aug. 13, though commissioners will be able to make adjustments to Veolia’s plan before they decide whether to approve or reject it.

The plan would then go before the City Council for its approval. That vote is expected to come at the council meeting on Aug. 27.

Should the fares win approval, Augustine said the intention would be to restore service to its previous levels.

New Orleans City Council President Jackie Clarkson urged residents to understand RTA’s situation as it works to come up with a plan to keep the ferries running.

“RTA did nothing to create this problem and they were willing to come to the table to help us solve the problem,” Clarkson said, to applause from the crowd.

But others took a more critical view of the proposed fares. Fay Faron, president of Friends of the Ferry, said a $2 fare might discourage ridership. That, in turn, could hurt the system’s viability, she said.

Doug Roome put the situation more starkly.

“Fares are a way to kill the ferries slowly rather than immediately,” Roome said.

Others noted that while it’s now free to drive across the CCC, the costs of the ferries are being shifted onto those who can’t afford it.

“I find it more than a little ironic that those who can afford a car can now cross the river for free, but those who can’t are now going to pay $4 a day,” Michelle Moltz said.