Three dozen people in matching blue "Save the Ferry" shirts filled New Orleans City Council chambers Aug. 5, as the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) held a meeting to hear public comments on a proposed fare for the Mississippi River ferries. Dozens more trickled in after 5 p.m. There were only a few empty seats.
Michelle Moltz was among the crowd. Moltz has lived in Algiers Point for more than 20 years, and she says the recent one-two punch of limiting the ferry's hours and raising fares will put a big hurt on her commute to work in the French Quarter.
"Assuming I don't have the lump sum of $75 to purchase a ferry pass, it would cost me $92 to commute for the month of August," she said. "Correction: It would be $88.20 because on Saturdays I have to take the bus — because the ferry hasn't begun service until 10:45 and I have to be at work at 9."
Ferry service has been precarious since last year's legislative session, when politicians and voters dismantled its primary funding source, the Crescent City Connection tolls. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) continued to operate the ferries — though with a drastically reduced budget. Those cuts became painful in July, when the ferry connecting Algiers Point to Canal Street, which used to run until midnight, stopped service at 8:15 p.m. on weekends and 6:45 p.m. weekdays, times when many Algerines are still at work on the East Bank. On Saturdays and Sundays, the ferry begins service at 10:45 a.m. Meanwhile, the Algiers-Chalmette ferry runs daily until 8:45 p.m.; the state shut down the Gretna-Canal Street ferry earlier this year, and the Edgard-Reserve ferry closed July 31.
Regular riders hoped a private operator would step up to take over the services. Instead, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 215, which Jindal signed into law June 13. The measure allows a municipal organization — in New Orleans the RTA and its umbrella company Veolia Transportation — to run the ferries.
The law also allows RTA to set the fares. In July, RTA unveiled its plan: on the Algiers-Canal ferry, pedestrians and drivers would pay $2 each way, or pay a $75 monthly fare; on the Chalmette-Algiers ferry, passengers pay $1 each way, and drivers pay $2. The Gretna-Canal ferry would return only for special events.
"The current ferry service we all utilize today is financially unstable," said Veolia Vice President Justin Augustine. "The ferry system is in desperate need of upgrades or the replacement of its boats, barges and terminals. ... We don't take this lightly. But we do have a plan."
That plan heads to the RTA's Board of Directors Aug. 13. In the meantime, however, workers like Moltz who depend on the ferry are worried.
"Public transportation is by definition for the public," Moltz said. "I'm not proposing the boat remain free. Change is inevitable. I'm willing to pay a fare to maintain its existence. I just would like to see the price be more in line with the other public transportation options in the city. ... Those who can afford a car can now cross the bridge for free. Those who depend on the boats are now looking at $4 a day."
A ferry service connecting the East Bank to the West Bank of Orleans Parish has been in place since the 1800s. The Crescent City Connection opened in 1988, though the tolls and their funding pipeline didn't kick in until 1994. After Hurricane Katrina, during one of the ferry system's longest service delays, the neighborhood group Friends of the Ferry successfully lobbied for the ferry's return to normal service.
Under its current funding model, the ferry service's annual operating costs total $8.8 million. The Chalmette ferry accounts for $4.8 million, and the Algiers ferry accounts for $3.9 million. The service receives only $5.5 million from state subsidies and another $500,000 from other sources — leaving a $2.8 million shortfall. The ferries' annual revenue stream from drivers' fares is $200,000 from Chalmette and $73,000 from Algiers.
The ferry may be a tourist attraction, but locals depend on it for public transportation. Transit advocacy organization Ride New Orleans reported in May 2013 that more than half of Algiers ferry riders use the ferry to commute to work — and 46 percent of those riders work in the hospitality industry. The ferry services more than 1 million people annually, and 20 percent of its ridership has no other mode of transportation. Many Algiers residents who attended the meeting said they fear being further isolated from the rest of New Orleans, with the river separating rather than connecting neighborhoods.
At last week's meeting, dozens of speakers offered comments and ideas. Some suggested student and resident-only rates. Others suggested leasing commercial space to offset costs. Many said they feared the fares would limit use of the ferry even more than during the current service cuts. Under the current fare system, those who can't pay $75 up front — about the cost of a monthly cellphone or water bill — would instead have to pay $4 a day, which could mean a $124-per-month tariff on what used to be a free ride.
"People who are working low-wage jobs are not going to be able to shell out $75 for a monthly pass in advance," said Ride New Orleans Executive Director Rachel Heiligman. "We need a smaller, discounted pass to really offer true savings for regular riders."
Algiers Riverview Association president Beryl Ragas, who represents a low- to moderate-income swath of Algiers, said a $4 daily fare for residents would be devastating for people in that area. "We can't allow a major hardship on our community," she said.
Ferry fares, whatever the price, do not include transfers to other modes of transit — RTA passes do not apply to the ferry, and vice versa. The RTA's 31-day "Jazzy Pass" is $55, but it includes buses and streetcars only. Riders who use other forms of public transportation besides the ferry would pay $130 a month for passes that include the ferry, streetcars and buses.
Several public comments at the Aug. 5 meeting called for RTA to implement a fully integrated transit system, including streetcars, buses and ferries, into a single monthly payment plan. State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, said the fares must be "affordable, especially for commuters.
"Someone can get on the bus in my district, ride that to the ferry, get off and jump on the Canal streetcar line — but they need to be able to do that with just one pass," Arnold said.
On the West Bank of the river, businesses already are feeling the cuts as fewer visitors are able to make the trip during decreased service hours. With service ending at 6:45 p.m., visitors can't stay on Algiers Point long enough to eat and drink: "Our sales have cut down almost half," said bartender Kerrie Harris, who works at the Crown & Anchor English pub on Algiers Point.
Kevin Herridge, who runs House of the Rising Sun bed and breakfast on Algiers Point, said his guests would be more than happy to pay for the ferry. "They can't believe the ferry is free, and they're willing to pay a couple of bucks," he said, adding that the service hour cuts are hurting his business and that tourists stay elsewhere if they can't take the ferry to the French Quarter in the evening.
"Algiers has always been the red-headed stepsister of New Orleans," Herridge said. "It's unlike any city I've seen where there's a river running through it."
Warren Munster, owner of Old Point Bar in Algiers, closed his remarks with a simple request: "We need help."
Meanwhile, other parts of the West Bank are discussing other options for transportation across the river. Westwego State Rep. Robert Billiot appeared at the meeting with Westwego City Councilman Glenn Green, who had a pitch to expand ferry service to the west.
That ferry would service Audubon Park and Uptown universities, Green said, linking them to the Alario Center and Bayou Segnette State Park. A similar ferry line ran from Westwego to Audubon Park until 1935, when the Huey P. Long Bridge opened.
But the Algiers ferry's reliability still seems precarious. The ferry made the Louisiana Landmarks Society's 2013 list of New Orleans most "endangered" sites.
On July 20, DOTD announced the Algiers ferry would be redeployed to the Chalmette line for a few days after the Chalmette boat broke down. What would once have been considered a minor inconvenience instead became a question of whether the boat would return — and what would happen to the people who depend on it.
The RTA says its fare framework will return the service to "normal" operations, but it won't be overnight.
"It takes an absolute, aggressive minimum of two years to design a boat, order a boat and get it delivered," Augustine said. "It's the three-year mark before we can really get up there and do the things you want for your service."