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As Mississippi River Ferry Service Slowly Disappears, Many Are Searching For Answers

This story was reported by Della Hasselle of The Lens, and produced by Janaya Williams.

The Algiers Ferry was hit with a reduction in hours last week. Ferry riders and small business owners say they’re already feeling the effects, and with major funding lost and no clear plan in place for the ferry’s future operations, West Bank commuters are looking for answers.

The French Quarter was the first neighborhood settled in New Orleans. Algiers, across the Mississippi River, was the second. Since 1827 they’ve been connected by ferryboat.

The Algiers ferry used to run from 6 a.m until after midnight, every day. Now, ferry service shuts down much earlier — before 7 p.m. on most days, and around 8 p.m. on weekends. That could leave riders stranded.

One million people take the ferry every year. Compared to the 33 million cars and trucks that drive across the river on the Crescent City Connection bridge, the ferry may seem antiquated, even insignificant. But people need it, says Rachel Helligman, the head of Ride New Orleans, an advocacy group for affordable transportation.

“Of the people who are riding to get to their jobs, 43 percent said that their commute would become very difficult, and 22 percent said that their commute would become impossible,” Helligman says. “These are people who lose the ability to maintain the jobs they have today.”

Those statistics come from a survey Ride New Orleans conducted in April of more than 1500 ferry riders.

“When you can’t drive across that bridge we use the ferry. And if the ferry stops running it really puts a lot of us out of work,” says school janitor Melvin Jackson. “And with the time change it really puts a damper on our time, because I’ve lost time. I mean, I’ve lost two days. I usually would work the weekends, but with this time change it wouldn’t fit my schedule and I’m really losing money.”

Credit Della Hasselle / The Lens
The new ferry hours are listed on LCD screens at the Canal Street and Algiers Point ferry terminals.

Like many Algiers residents, Jackson says the buses across the bridge just aren’t feasible. The wait can be more than an hour and half to get home late at night. And for some, like passenger Yaffa Frank, the ferries are just more meaningful.

“There’s a connection as you are crossing over the rivers; they run really deep,” Frank says. “I’m very connected to that, so I choose to take the ferry versus the bus sometimes.”

Business owners are worried, too. Kevin Herridge owns the House of the Rising Sun Bed and Breakfast in Algiers Point. He protested at a rally on the Fourth of July to reinstate the ferry’s longer hours.

“I’m here to try and get the ferry running back to normal,” Herridge said. “It will do so much damage to the neighborhood. Not only property value will drop — I’ve been told that by realtors in this city — we’ll obviously lose business. May even close."

But how did the ferry get in this limbo? Well, it seems for years local agencies have been playing hot potato with ferry oversight.

The Crescent City Connection Division used to run the Algiers and Gretna ferries, funding them with tolls collected on the Crescent City Connection bridge. Lawmakers severed the ferries from toll money in an attempt to privatize them, but no bidders took the bait. And then the tolls were eliminated.

The Regional Planning Commission now acts as ferry advisor to the state’s transportation department. But they say they’re not responsible for running the ferries either.

Now, either the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority or another company could run the ferry service. Or lawmakers could go back to the drawing board.

There are some incentives for the RTA. New laws allow for fares, and for at least $1.5 million for a two-year transition.

But the RTA has made no promises. They said they will continue discussions with the state and their private operator, Veolia Transportation, but only if ferry operations don’t jeopardize bus and streetcar services.

Fay Farron directs the nonprofit Friends of the Ferry. She wonders why the ferry is still free for pedestrians. Adding a fare could help close a nearly 1.5 million-dollar funding gap.

“The kid is drowning in the ocean and everybody is on the boat saying this is terrible, we should do something about this, but who’s going to jump in and risk their life to save him?” Farron wonders. “And that’s what’s going on with our ferry right now.”

At the Fourth of July rally, she suggested a fare of a dollar per person and two per car.

“We’re here today because we want Bobby Jindal to put fares on the ferry immediately and restore those midnight hours,” she said then. “Because without that income we can’t run the ferry until those midnight hours, and we’re willing to take our money and save our ferry.”

When it comes to long-term solutions, it seems that the only plan right now is to wait for a private company to seal the deal.

“Everyone knows they’ll have to pay for it,” says New Orleans City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson. “Everyone knows it’s going to be a charge. I think the only solution’s going to be a private management with these public entities.”

Clarkson says the company already has to be capable of transportation. In the meantime, more than a million ferry riders are waiting for a solution.