Filed Under:  Local, News

Ferries for Gretna: Connecting NOLa by water

28th July 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

To stand at Circular Quay in Sydney is to have the choice to board a variety of pedestrian ferries that can take one to multiple tourist locations across the long, river-like bay of Australia’s oldest and largest city. They serve as a key part of both the visitor and local transportation infrastructure, providing easy, and fun transport for a subsidized price from early morning to late in the evening. The ferries keep outlaying communities from experiencing urban decay, so connected are they to the city center.

The public transport power of such a ferry model is, perhaps, even better seen on the other side of the planet, in Hamburg, Germany. Like New Orleans, Hamburg, once one of the largest ports in the world, saw containerization ravage its docklands districts, leaving them virtual slums. Communities along its River Elbe that once housed full warehouses and the workers who filled them, were dying into crime-filled hopelessness. gretna-ferry-072814

By creating a series of interconnecting ferries distributing passengers up and down the Elbe (matched with a coordinated urban renewal plan including constructing a modernist Opera house on a natural peninsula that looks uncannily like Algiers Point), the ferries have turned dying communities into vital urban districts close connected to the beat of the city heart. Urban professionals have moved in, and property values have skyrocketed.

Such a use of water transportation should be a simple model for Greater New Orleans to duplicate on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Yet despite valiant efforts, the West and East Bank are even less connected than they were prior to Hurricane Katrina. A study two weeks ago by the advocacy group Ride New Orleans found that went it came to overall public transport options, Orleans possessed only 36% of the pre-Katrina transit service offered by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in 2005. This is true of Riverboats now, as well, in the wake of the canceling of the CCC tolls. The Gretna-Canal Street is ferry officially dead, and despite RTA’s takeover of the Algiers Ferry’, hours seem so reduced that it seems at times that the ferry seems on life support.

Despite the circumstances, Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant believes that the metro area has an opportunity to build a ferry system on the Mississippi River that would intersect communities on the East and West Bank, and provide life for struggling ring suburbs, like her town.

”I would like to see ferries not only connecting Gretna and Canal Street, but a whole system of pedestrian ferries that links all the [metro] communities along the River,” she said. Constant envisions ferries leaving from a central point, like Canal Street, but coming making a couple of landings up and down the river, providing a tourist friendly, but locally utilized public transport system via water.

That was once how most New Orleanians traveled, after all. Constant points to studies that show access to attractive public transport constitutes one of main means to encourage population retention and return, a major issue for a ring suburban city like hers that has experienced population loss in years. Yet, it’s a personal issue for Constant who grew up in Historic Gretna, and lives just down from her century-old City Hall on Huey P. Long Ave.

”People were beginning to discover Old Gretna as a historic community,” Constant noted, “and the Canal Street ferry played a role in that.” As housing costs began to skyrocket in the Bywater, Marigny, and throughout Uptown and Downtown, she saw a chance for her historic hometown to become a new feeder community to New Orleans. Connected to Canal Street and the French Quarter, Old Gretna seemed the perfect next locale.

Ridership, though, had not reached levels which justified the ferry’s continuance beyond using it for special, one weekend per year trips during Gretnafest. Ridership actually fell slightly from the old Jackson Ave.-Gretna Route, though pedestrian travel on the ferry rose exponentially. That was Constant’s indication that potential young residents were seriously beginning to look at her town’s century-plus homes as the next hipster expansion after the Bywater and Lower Garden District.

She also believes that connecting nearby historic Salaville to Audubon Park as Westwego Mayor John I. Shaddinger has proposed for historic district might work, if the trip was also connected to Downtown New Orleans, and potentially her town—as part of an overall ferry system, on the Sydney model.

Ride New Orleans Executive Director Rachel Heiligman agrees. In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, she explains, “An expanded ferry system throughout the greater New Orleans region is absolutely something we should strive for. More ferries would alleviate congestion on the Huey P Long and Crescent City Connection bridges and enhance quality of life and workforce access to employment opportunities throughout the region.”

How to pay for it, of course, is the overarching problem, Heiligman notes. “That said, ferries are costly to operate and transit agencies typically have more difficulty securing operating dollars. At the State level, we’ve not seen the level of commitment needed from our legislators and governor to make investment in ferry operations a priority – most notably, our lawmakers have not shown support for the idea of cross-subsidizing public transportation modes with automotive taxes and fees.”

Voters have proven even less enthusiastic, she adds, noting the rejection of the Crescent City Connection toll renewal. That leaves, she says, outside of taxes, “public-private partnerships and of course, passenger fares, to raise local monies for expanded ferry service.”

Most experts wonder if that’s enough. Almost no municipal ferry service in the world is self-supporting. Still, Heiligman maintains that they play a critical role, along with other “alternative transportation modes including walking, biking and public transit…to the creation of vibrant, healthy and sustainable neighborhoods that encourage economic opportunities for all residents.”

“That’s why Ride New Orleans is working to,” she declared hopefully.

Part of the problem is that ferry advocates have overplayed their hand in the past—or at least played it badly. The insistence made by Orleans Councilwoman Kristen Palmer, for example, that the ferry system served as “a hurricane evacuation route” for automobiles when bridges were within spitting distance struck several legislators, with whom this newspaper spoke, as simply absurd.

In other words, the fight to keep the cars on the ferries helped kill them faster.

On a basic level, it was unsurprising that ferry advocates chose to argue the automobile angle. The Department of Transportation and Development defines state ferries as means to connect two state highways for motorized transportation. Pedestrial and self-powered (bicycle) are left to the cities. The state picked up the costs.

The RTA was supposed to be the solution, and it and Veolia recently took control of the Algiers Ferry, levying a $2 ridership fee, and prohibiting automobile traffic on it (though not the Chalmette ferry). However, a statement a year ago by the Region Transit Authority hardly demonstrates enthusiasm for the taking over the ferries. ”But to put it simply, ferry service is not part of the RTA’s primary mission,” the statement said. “In spite of the fact that ferry service is outside the RTA’s mission as well as its funding capability, we would support an agreement between the RTA, Veolia and the state to continue the ferry service on some basis that would not jeopardize current and future bus, streetcar and paratransit services in New Orleans and bus services in Kenner.”

The Algiers Ferry costs about $4 million annually to operate. In 2013, the Legislature provided $1.5 million for the Department of Transportation and Development to keep it running, and the Regional Planning Commission added another $300,000. The ferries continue to operate at a loss, hence the reduced schedule. Of course, as Ride New Orleans noted in its July 16, 2014 study, RTA already is running a $4.3 million deficit in its current operations. 

RTA did announce a week and a half ago that the Canal Street ferry will expand its hours, running from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday starting July 21. Since RTA took over the ferry, its first crossing has been at 7:15 a.m. and its last trip started at 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, the last trip left at 8 p.m. In contrast historically, the Algiers Ferry ran until midnight.◊

Meanwhile Mayor Shaddinger still is attempting negotiation with the state Department of Trans­portation and Development as well as the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority for pedestrian ferry service at Lazy River Landing. In fact, Westwego City Councilman Glenn Green last year sought authorization to allow the Mayor to pursue any offer “public or private, that would be interested in operating a ferry for the city of Westwego.”

Even with added sweeteners, such as proposing the construction of a pedestrian bridge over River Road, linking Lazy River Landing to a city-owned parking lot, though, so far, there have been no takers—in more than a year.

This article originally published in the July 28, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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