Bay of St. Louis ferry prices shock some folks

Published 3:18 pm Thursday, September 28, 2006

Many people see the ferry service across the Bay of St. Louis as an important piece of the recovery puzzle. Others have argued that it will be a waste of money.

The numbers are finally in on the project, and the price tag for the ferry operator breaks down to around $30 per car if the 22-car vessels operate at capacity.

“I think normally you would have a tough time justifying it, but it’s just like those bridges costing so much,” Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown said. “At this time, in these circumstances, those bridges are going to cost more.

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“It’s just a matter of the circumstances we’re caught in: It’s going to cost more.”

The Mississippi Department of Transportation chose a proposal that will cost about $5 million for the seven-month contract. It’s had a maintenance crew working long hours getting the roads for the Henderson Point terminal in shape for a Nov. 1 start.

“They’re working daylight to dark,” MDOT engineer David Seyfarth said. “We want to make sure we meet that Nov. 1 deadline. I think we will. We’ll be done.”

MDOT awarded two contracts worth more than $2.3 million last week for dredging, pile driving and materials needed to build the terminals. MDOT crews will build the terminals and roads leading to them. They have been working to repair and clear more than a mile of Old U.S. 90, Third Avenue and other county roads on Henderson Point, and build an access road south of the seawall.

The tab will be completely picked up by the Federal Highway Administration, meaning riders pay nothing in fares. But even if it operates at capacity, the ferry’s per-car cost is more than double the fare of the Mobile Bay Ferry, which runs between Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island.

It costs $14 for cars, pickups and vans and is run by Hornblower Marine Services, the same Indiana-based company that will operate the Bay of St. Louis ferry.

MDOT’s request for proposals called for the operator to provide two vessels. Hornblower Marine may negotiate starting with one ferry, to judge the traffic.

John Waggoner, the company’s owner, said that might make it more palatable if there’s poor business, but admitted it could also hurt the ferry’s traffic if people find that waiting 1-1/2 hours between departures makes the long commute around the bay more attractive.

He also said that two ferries give greater flexibility if, for example, a maintenance issue shuts down one vessel.

Two ferries would be able to transport 748 cars a day. Gulf Regional Planning Commission’s last traffic count on the U.S. 90 bridge in 2005 showed that 19,000 cars used it daily.

Depending on bad-weather days, the ferry will run for 212 days, until two lanes are open on the new U.S. 90 bridge. Plans are for 17 departures daily, to leave every 45 minutes.

With the estimated $5 million price tag, the math breaks down to $31.53 per car capacity just based on operator’s cost.

As a comparison, Washington State Ferries, the nation’s largest and world’s third largest system, carried about 10.8 million vehicles and 13 million walk-on passengers in 2005. The system’s fiscal year 2006 budget is $193 million, which breaks down to a little more than $8 per passenger or vehicle.

The Seattle-to-Bainbridge ferry, for example, is the system’s busiest route and charges a base rate of $6.50 for passengers and $14.10 for vehicles under 20 feet and carries 20,000 people a day. The system generates 73 percent of its budget through fares with the rest coming through subsidies, making the cars’ cost closer to $20.

Hornblower Marine owner John Waggoner said the cost comparisons with Mobile Bay and Washington are difficult. His company will have to provide the vessels and be liable for major repairs and refitting, for example.

In Mobile, the state owns the boats and port facilities. The fares there pay the operating expenses.

Crew costs here will be higher because it’s a short-term job in a tight labor market driven by high demand for offshore crew and supply vessels.

“That’s what makes this substantially higher,” said Waggoner.