White Castle ferry crossings end Friday on Miss. River

Come Monday, Raymond Briley’s daily commute will just about triple.

Briley, who works in Carville but lives in Donaldsonville — across the Mississippi River — is one of the many commuters who will see their vehicle’s daily gasoline consumption rise dramatically when the White Castle ferry goes away for good on Friday.

The state’s Department of Transportation and Development announced Wednesday that it would permanently shut down the ferry a week ahead of schedule due to staffing shortages created by the resignations of the vessel’s licensed operators.

“It’s going to hurt a lot of people,” Briley said, estimating that his weekly fuel costs would jump from $40 to about $130.

As of Wednesday, all three ferry employees had resigned while the fourth, Michael Edwards, a 31-year ferry veteran, is set to retire from the state at the end of June, said Dustin Annison, a spokesman with the DOTD.

Annison said DOTD officials met with the ferry service employees on May 24 to inform them they would be laid off at the end of June when the ferry shut down.

“I’m definitely going to miss it,” Edwards said of the ferry, the Saint Charles, adding that he’s mostly going to “take it easy” for a little while.

DOTD brought in workers from the Plaquemine ferry to help Edwards keep the ferry running in the meantime.

The ferry, which DOTD has operated since 1973, had originally been scheduled to take its last voyage across the Mississippi River on June 28.

Jeff Zeringue, who lives in White Castle but works at the Syngenta Corp. chemical plant in St. Gabriel, has been riding the ferry for 18 years.

“It’s going to be an inconvenience,” Zeringue said of the ferry closure, “but I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” which means driving about 20 minutes out of the way to take the Plaquemine ferry, he said.

The ferry gets heavy usage from the many workers who cross the river to their jobs at the chemical plants in St. Gabriel and Plaquemine.

The Plaquemine ferry is the nearest river crossing north of the White Castle ferry landing, while the Sunshine Bridge in Donaldsonville is the closest southern crossing about 20 miles away.

The White Castle ferry, which costs $1 per ride from Carville, will maintain normal operating hours until Friday — from 4:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The ferry’s closure is based on recommendations approved by the state Legislature from its Streamlining Committee which targeted certain ferries for closure that do not provide state or regional transportation connectivity and are primarily local transit services.

Annison said approximately 51,000 drivers used the White Castle ferry annually — an average of 195 per day.

Wednesday afternoon, the boat was packed, as one crew member put it, “like a can of sardines.”

The Saint Charles can hold about 19 small cars, or between 16 and 18 once a few trucks roll on, crew members said, whereas the nearby Plaquemine ferry holds about 45 cars.

In the past few years, Annison said, DOTD has shut down both the St. Francisville and Melville ferries, saving taxpayers approximately $2.7 million annually.

In addition to the White Castle ferry, Annison said, the Edgard/Reserve ferry is also scheduled for closure this year.

“Closing the (White Castle) ferry will save approximately $1.3 million per year,” Annison said. “To supplement this service, it would cost approximately $6,600 per rider, per year, or $25 per trip.”

DOTD said last year it intended to shut down the White Castle ferry in December 2012 because of state budget woes.

The ferry’s impending closure was delayed by six months because Iberville Parish entered into an agreement with the DOTD to accept a stretch of state highway into the parish’s road system for a $1.4 million credit toward the ferry’s operation and maintenance costs from January through June.

According to a resolution adopted by the Iberville Parish Council on Dec. 18, the parish agreed to take ownership of 3.18 miles of La. 3066, from its intersection with La. 75 in Plaquemine to Indian Village Road, after DOTD has given the thoroughfare a $10 million upgrade.

The road had been closed approximately 15 years because of erosion problems, officials said previously.

Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso said Wednesday the ferry’s closure would be a sentimental blow to the community but that he understood why the ferry’s employees chose to walk away earlier, forcing the premature closure.

“They had to go take care of their families; I can understand that,” Ourso said. “They’ve been dealing with whether they would have a job or not for months.”

Ourso added, “This is an emotional thing with some of these people (but) the ferry would have been closed six months ago if the parish hadn’t stepped and extended its life with that agreement with DOTD.”

Editor’s note: This story was modified on June 20, 2013, to indicate that the Sunshine Bridge is about 20 miles from the White Castle ferry, not 40 miles. The Advocate regrets the error.