Ferry services threatened by funding cuts

City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer on Tuesday warned that if the state doesn’t act fast, the Mississippi River ferries that serve the New Orleans area could see drastically reduced service or complete cuts by June.

The changes, Palmer said, could affect economic development in the city and overwhelm the already strained Crescent City Connection bridge and the Regional Transit Authority if more cars are funneled onto the bridge or former pedestrian passengers are forced onto buses to cross the river.

“We have to appreciate this is a transportation system. One action will have a reaction,” Palmer said, noting that land and water travel work in tandem to efficiently move people. “This is something that will impact all of us.”

For years, the ferries were funded by Crescent City Connection tolls. That funding, however, ended Jan. 1, as part of state legislation that prohibited that practice, leaving the vessels’ future uncertain.

Rhett Desselle, assistant secretary of operations for the state Department of Transportation and Development, told the City Council’s transportation committee that his agency has $4 million to operate the Algiers, Chalmette and Gretna ferries until the end of the fiscal year in June.

The problem is that the Gretna ferry alone costs $3 million a year to operate, while the Algiers and Chalmette ferries each cost about $4 million a year, Desselle said. The three ferries combined don’t even bring in $500,000 a year in fares, Desselle said.

A request in November for proposals to privatize the ferries had no takers, meaning the responsibility to operate them still falls to the state. When Palmer asked if the DOTD would again try to solicit private management, Desselle was noncommittal, saying the department would “leave it on the table for discussion.”

Since the only options at this point are to reduce or cut ferry services, Palmer said there needs to be a greater sense of urgency on the state’s part about finding a funding source to continue existing service, something she doesn’t see right now. Palmer also questioned how serious the state is about continuing operations that, she said, provide 2 million trips annually.

“For the state to basically not take responsibility is frightening and shocking,” Palmer said.

“We will operate the ferries with the revenue stream they have,” Desselle said.

Ferry supporters said one option to begin shoring up the differences in operating costs might be to begin charging fares to pedestrians who ride for free right now.

“I think the sooner we put that into place the better,” said Joseph Toomy with Friends of the Ferry.

Desselle, however, said that privatization efforts failed since potential operators were worried that introducing fares would reduce the number of riders, since they are accustomed to crossing the river for free.

Considering alternatives to the expensive ferries, District E Councilman James Gray asked if it might make more financial sense to look into using smaller boats that would cost less to operate.

Desselle said that while that is possible in some other places, the Mississippi River and its strong currents doesn’t seem to allow for that, based on a “survey” of those options. He said there has not been an “exhaustive” report to look into that matter.

Fay Faron, president of The Ferry Foundation, said that while the DOTD seems capable of handling the state’s bridges and roads, it doesn’t appear that the agency is suited to operate the ferries.

“I just don’t think this is in their skill set,” Faron said.

The Regional Planning Commission is expected to discuss the issue at its next meeting on Feb. 19.