BY JEFF ADELSON
Riders not required to pay new fares yet
A new operator will be coming to the New Orleans-area ferry system on Sunday as Veolia Transportation, the company that runs the city’s Regional Transit Authority buses and streetcars, formally takes over the waterborne routes.
But, for now, riders will not have to pay the new fares that were set to go along with the company’s takeover of the Algiers Point-Canal Street and Chalmette routes.
The company’s Friday announcement comes months after the groundwork for the takeover was laid as state legislators scrambled last year for a way to keep the ferries running without funding from the Crescent City Connection’s tolls.
Officials had originally anticipated the state Department of Transportation and Development would turn over the keys to the ferries in October, but discussions and the need to get regulatory clearance for the French company to run vessels in U.S. waters caused delays that were only wrapped up this week.
“The ink is still drying; we got the final word within the last few days,” Veolia spokeswoman Patrice Bell Mercadel said Friday. “It’s very new, and we are jumping in and very ready to commence the ferry operations.”
At least at first, the takeover will not result in longer hours for the ferry routes, which saw their schedules slashed by the state as a cost-saving measure. Algiers Point residents and businesses have been vocal about the need for longer hours, ideally allowing that route to run until at least midnight so that service-industry workers on late shifts in the French Quarter and tourists exploring the nightlife on the West Bank can make their way back to their respective beds.
Any additional hours will depend on how ridership stacks up under the new system and how much money the company is able to generate through fares.
“We are committed to providing as much service as we possibly can with the fare revenue,” Mercadel said.
“There are already conversations under way internally and with our constituency groups to make sure people are being provided a good base level of service that meets their needs,” she said.
For now, however, the Algiers Point route will continue making its first run at 7:15 a.m. on weekdays and 10:45 a.m. on weekends. The last run of the day is still 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 6 p.m. on Sunday.
An announcement on special schedules for Mardi Gras is expected next week.
The Chalmette route runs from 6 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. every day.
Veolia originally announced the new fares would go into effect at the same time as the takeover, but it reversed course Friday night.
In an email, company officials said they are delaying implementing the new fares and will notify riders before they go into effect.
Those new charges will end what are now free trips across the river for pedestrians. They will also result in higher costs for motorists, who now pay $1 per vehicle.
Veolia officials have said the fares, approved by the City Council last year, are needed to bridge the $2.8 million gap between the $6 million the state is putting into the ferries and the amount they cost to operate.
The Algiers Point route, which serves about 1.2 million riders each year, will remain pedestrian-only, while the Chalmette route, which carries half a million cars a year, will continue to carry vehicles as well. For both routes, a ride for most pedestrians will cost $2 each way once the new fares go into effect, with reduced fares of $1 each way for senior citizens and the disabled. Children younger than 2 will ride for free.
On the Chalmette route, the new fares will require drivers to pay $2 each way while each passenger will pay $1. Bringing a trailer on the ferry will cost $3 each way. Drivers are also eligible for the same discounts as pedestrians.
The privatization of the ferries has been bandied about since 2012, when lawmakers severed the links between the routes and their traditional funding source, the tolls on the CCC. That move was made to separate the fate of the ferries from that of the tolls, whose continuation was rejected by voters in a later referendum, with the expectation that a private firm would take over operations.
But no company stepped forward, prompting lawmakers last year to vote to let the RTA operate the routes with new funding.
The state has also offered a deal that could help subsidize an upgrade of the aging, expensive ferries; officials hope the work would cut the costs to run the routes.
The contract between Veolia and the transportation department was not available Friday.