It’s been a tumultuous year for the ferries that cross the Mississippi River in New Orleans and Chalmette. They’ve lost much of their state funding. Shorter hours of operation have angered residents and businesses in Algiers Point. Fare hikes by the private company that just took them over have caused a big drop in ridership. As they chart a course forward, officials with Veolia Transportation, the new operator of both the Canal Street-Algiers Point and Chalmette routes, say they’re trying to navigate a system that is no longer buoyed by the amount of state funds it received in the past.
That means looking to new sources of revenue such as advertising on the vessels and terminals, bringing in newer and more efficient ferries and promoting the ferries as a reliable and fun method of transportation in an effort to reverse flagging ridership.
But, in the end, much will depend on how many people actually use the system, Veolia Vice President Justin Augustine said. “The public has to side with the system,” he said.
Four months after Veolia formally took over the ferries, the major focus is on plans to improve the customer experience and to try to lure more riders onto the boats.
“Besides the folks on the West Bank that use it for work, people didn’t use (the ferry) for pleasure as much as they could have,” Augustine said.
The first steps in the process are set to go into effect next month. On Tuesday, Veolia will roll out a $65 monthly pass good for unlimited trips on the ferries, though drivers taking the Chalmette route may still have to pay extra if their vehicles have passengers or trailers when using the pass.
Perhaps more important to many ferry riders, July 21 will mark the beginning of extended hours for the Algiers Point service.
Funding for that effort comes from a law sponsored by state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers, in 2013 that gives Veolia a share of Crescent City Connection toll money that was supposed to be refunded but was never claimed. Veolia estimates that its share will amount to $1.2 million, enough to operate the extended weekday hours for about two years, Augustine said.
“I’m very excited we put something together and now we’ve got the hours back. Very proud,” Heitmeier said.
The extended hours, he hopes, will bring in more regular riders, especially since they now encompass the hours needed for most regular commuters to get to and from work.
Meanwhile, Veolia is seeking approval to have an out-of-service ferry from Washington state shipped to New Orleans for use on the pedestrians-only Algiers Point route. That vessel would come at no cost to the system under federal rules that allow unused assets purchased with federal transportation dollars to be relocated to other systems.
The newer, smaller ferry is expected to meet the system’s needs during all but the most high-traffic periods such as Mardi Gras. And, critically, it is expected to be cheaper to operate and require less maintenance, Augustine said.
It should also be less prone to the breakdowns that plague the current ferry.
“Reliability is key,” he said.
The savings generated — still uncertain in dollar terms — will be plowed back into extending hours or other upgrades.
Veolia, of course, will also take a cut of the proceeds as profit, though officials with the company would not say how much.
Major changes to the ferry routes started two years ago, when lawmakers decided the ferries would no longer get money from the Crescent City Connection tolls that had traditionally supported their operation. That move was made so that the ferries would not become an issue in a referendum on whether to extend the tolls. Voters ultimately decided to end the tolls.
State officials had hoped a private company would take over the ferries, but when no one stepped forward to bid on the service, lawmakers came back with measures aimed at allowing Veolia to step in.
As that deal was taking shape, the state slashed the ferries’ operating hours to stretch the temporary funding put in place to tide the system over. Veolia eventually took over the system in February and instituted a new set of fares.
The ferries had cost the state about $10 million a year in operating costs. State money is still used in the system — particularly for the Chalmette route, which is considered a priority by the state Department of Transportation and Development because of the lack of alternative paths across the river in that area — but ongoing payments represent only about half the previous funding, Augustine said.
Getting people to use the ferries, particularly if they have to pay, still represents a challenge for the system.
Ridership snapshots released by Veolia show a sharp decline in use of the Algiers Point route over the past few years. Between Feb. 16 and May 31, 2012, about 487,650 people rode the Algiers Point ferry. A year later, that number had dropped to 361,946.
For that same time period in 2014, which was marked by the introduction of the new fares, the ridership dropped to 200,740. Veolia had been expecting about a 20 percent drop in ridership after the new fares went into effect, but the actual declines on both the Algiers Point and Chalmette routes were far greater than that.
It’s a stark change for a system that had been seeing increasing ridership up until two years ago, and it represents one of the biggest challenges facing Veolia in New Orleans.
To reverse the trend, the company plans to start a major marketing campaign aimed at boosting ridership later this year.
“We want people to take a ride and see what it’s like,” said Patrice Bell Mercadel, Veolia’s director of marketing and communications.
Additional long-terms plans call for a more integrated fare system and a monthly pass that will be good on both the ferries and the RTA’s buses and streetcars. Because of the need to help fund the ferries, those passes will be more expensive than the Jazzy Pass that now allows unlimited RTA trips for a set amount of time, Augustine said.
Advertising on the ferries and terminals could provide another source of revenue for the system.
The finances of the ferries are being kept apart from the rest of Veolia’s operations in the New Orleans area, in part to keep money dedicated to one system from being used to subsidize other methods of transportation.
“We’re not taking anything away from the streetcars and buses,” Augustine said.
Veolia also has access to $3 million for facility improvements and another $16 million for upgrades to the ferries from a mix of local, state and federal sources. That should be enough to purchase an additional vessel for both the Algiers Point and Chalmette routes.
Previously, the Agliers Point ferry was free; pedestrian passage is now $2 each way. The cost of the Chalmette ferry rose from $1 per vehicle to $2 for vehicle and driver and $1 for each additional passenger.