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Ferry service remains an option for Lake Pontchartrain

29th December 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Plans floated in recent years to run ferries across the lake between Mandeville and New Orleans are in limbo but not dead, according to Pontchartrain Express, Inc. in Covington last week. Captain Johannes Schild, a partner in that company, said the firm’s bank requires that 15-year leases on north and south shore landings be approved before it can make a loan backed by the nation’s Small Business Administration.

“The south shore’s not a problem because we have permission to locate on the Industrial Canal from lessee Pontchartrain Landings and the owners, the Port of New Orleans,” Schild said. “But one of the few north shore properties suitable for our ferries is the site of a former concrete plant at Sunset Point in Mandeville, and we’ve been unable to lease it.” The Pre-Stressed Concrete Products facility is on 80 acres east of the causeway bridge.

Last week, Dr. Michael Pittman, a Covington resident who co-owns that Mandeville site, said he has no business dealings with Pontchartrain Express. “I offered them a small section of it for $1 a year,” he said. “I support their idea but can’t tie up this valuable property so that ferry passengers can park.” Meanwhile, his property awaits development. Schild said if the land is sold to a commercial developer, Pontchartrain Express might be able to obtain a 15-year lease there.

But if the old concrete site is sold to build houses, homeowners won’t want hundreds of people passing by every day, Schild said. Two ferries carrying 150 passengers each could serve about 1,200 riders daily. A couple of other spots near the causeway are also possibilities for a north shore landing.

Pontchartrain Express is seeking a $10 million loan from its bank in New England to build two high-speed, 80-foot-long catamarans. “They’d be able to travel 35 mph on the lake,” Schild said. “We would run them during rush hour and other times to Pontchartrain Landing in New Orleans East.” From there, passengers would be shuttled to the University of New Orleans, downtown hospitals, Poydras St., the French Quarter, uptown and Tulane University. The ferry would take about 40 minutes, and with the shuttle, commuters might reach midtown in less than an hour.

“That compares with at least an hour by car now in bumper-to-bumper, rush hour traffic, with no emergency lane on the causeway,” Schild said. “I made the drive for twelve years in the 1980s to early 1990s when traffic wasn’t as heavy as it is now.” Ferries can be relied on in wet, foggy and windy conditions when driving is hazardous, he also said.

After three vehicles plunged off the causeway this year, causing two fatalities, Texas A&M researchers are testing higher rails for the bridge. It averages a dozen wrecks per month, blamed in part on drivers exceeding the 65 mph speed limit and talking on cell phones. Over 40,000 vehicles use the causeway on a weekday, and chain-reaction accidents occur.

Pontchartrain Express, meanwhile, has cleared some regulatory hurdles. “We were given coastal use and construction permits by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year,” Schild said. To date, the state hasn’t considered ferries on the lake. “Any ferry activity there would be related to a private industry,” Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development spokesman Rodney Mallett said last week. “This is not something DTD is pursuing.”

Executive director Rachel Heiligman of advocacy group Ride New Orleans said the more options, the better. “In addition to alleviating the causeway’s congestion, water transit would allow people to travel car free,” she said. “It would be a way for those without a car to access jobs and services across our regional economy, where all residents need safe, convenient and affordable transportation choices.”

In recent years, Pontchartrain Express has received 800 responses to a user survey on its website. “We’ve generated interest from commuters and others tired of the traffic, accidents and stress on the causeway,” Schild said. “Ferries would benefit both sides of the lake. Attorneys in New Orleans, for instance, say they’d like to read briefs on a ferry while traveling to St. Tammany Courthouse in Mandeville.” Crescent City residents could sail up to jobs, relatives and friends on the north shore. “People in St. Tammany want to come down for Saints games, Mardi Gras parades and festivals, without worrying about parking and whether they’ve had a drink,” Schild said. “The Global Wildlife Center and other attractions in St. Tammany want more visitors from New Orleans.”

A ferry ticket would cost $15 one way, Schild said. The causeway is 24 miles long, and the Internal Revenue Service reimbursement rate for business travel by car will be 57.5 cents a mile in 2015. “The price we’d charge isn’t expensive,” he said. “Based on my research on ferry lines, our price would be the lowest per mile for this type of service in the nation.”

Schild said with fewer cars on the causeway, ferry service could cut carbon dioxide emissions by 500,000 pounds per year, according to a 2012 estimate from the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission.

This article originally published in the December 29, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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