Ferry Service Cutbacks Hurt New Orleans Commuters, Economy

Funding cutbacks have reduced both the number of ferries that cross the Mississippi River and the schedules of those that remain, leaving commuters with few options.

A ride on the Canal Street ferry in New Orleans.
New Orleans, which has had more than its share of problems, now faces another: A ferry that serves as a lifeline for thousands of city residents has had its schedule significantly reduced as the state cuts back on funding.

The ferry in question connects Algiers, a predominantly low-income, African-American community on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, to Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. Every day, more than 1,500 residents commute using the ferry to hotel, retail, banking, hospital and government jobs. More than one million pedestrians and 175,000 vehicles use the ferry annually.

Until July, it operated 18 hours a day. Now, the ferry runs less than 12 hours a day and even fewer hours on the weekend. It may not seem like a big deal, but for many passengers the alternative is a 7-mile detour by bus, since most residents in Algiers don't own a car. It is a slow, inconvenient trek, which is another reason nearly half of all Algiers commuters use the ferry to get to work.

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The cutbacks are part of a broader reduction in overall ferry services in New Orleans and throughout the state. At one time, Louisiana had 10 ferry crossings on the Mississippi River. Today, it operates just 5, with 3 inside the New Orleans metro area. The cuts have curtailed hours at a nearby car ferry serving lower Algiers and Chalmette, which is located east of downtown New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish; operations of a third ferry have stopped completely.

Despite the popularity of the Algiers-Canal Street ferry, the state says it can no longer afford the heavy subsidies. Until 2013, ferry operations were funded by a toll drivers paid when they crossed the Crescent City Connection, the most heavily traveled bridge on the lower Mississippi. But state legislators redirected toll funding to another project last year, leaving ferry operations in a huge financial hole. (This spring, voters in a referendum did away with the toll altogether.) The three ferries remaining in New Orleans cost $11 million to operate annually, but generate only $240,000 in fares, according to the state.

One major reason fare revenue is so low: Pedestrians ride for free. The city's Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which has been tasked with figuring out how to keep the ferries running on a slimmer budget, recently approved new fares
, charging pedestrians who use the Algiers-Canal Street ferry $2 for a one-way ride; $4 for a round trip. The fares still have to be approved by the New Orleans City Council.

Clearly, the ferries can bring in more revenue by charging a toll for all passengers. The ferry system that serves Seattle and Puget Sound covers 70 percent of its costs through the fare box. But ferries, like any urban transit system, are expensive and, some argue, will always require subsidies. Congress has tried to dedicate funding for ferries, but the bills have never made it out of committee. The U.S. Department of Transportation has allocated discretionary funds for boats and terminals over the years, but ultimately, operational costs are a state and local concern.

The saga of the New Orleans ferry may seem modest when compared to other large urban transit systems. But ferries have been an integral part of the city's transportation network. It's the fourth largest urban ferry system in the country and it serves the downtown business district of New Orleans, connecting residents to jobs and tourists to the casinos and the French Quarter.

The story on how Louisiana and New Orleans will fund what remains of their ferry system has yet to be worked out. In the meantime, the state has put one of its retired ferries up for auction
. The St. Charles, built 62 years ago and capable of carrying 17 cars is for sale. Minimum bid: $200,000. Any takers?

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.