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Keeping ferries afloat: Fare hikes could come next month

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Bridg Hunt, general manager  of North Ferry, at a public meeting at Town Hall May 28, on a bid to raise fares.

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Bridg Hunt, general manager of North Ferry, at a public meeting at Town Hall May 28, on a bid to raise fares.

North Ferry rates will go up sometime around the Fourth of July weekend.

That’s Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman’s assessment, which he gave at a public meeting Wednesday, May 28. Mr. Schneiderman (I-Montauk) represents the Island in the Legislature, and Suffolk County is the regulatory agency when it comes to fare increases.

At the beginning of the meeting at Town Hall on North Ferry’s bid to raise rates, Mr. Schneiderman took a head count and declared, “ Judging by the size of the crowd, I guess it’s not the biggest controversy on Shelter Island.”

The “crowd” was two members of the Heights Property Owners Corporation, one member of the press and Cliff Clark, president of South Ferry.

Bridg Hunt, general manager of North Ferry, told members of the town’s Ferry Advisory Committee, including Supervisor Jim Dougherty and Councilwoman Chris Lewis, that the fare hikes would be comparable to increases in prices consumers have seen for the region. The increases North Ferry are asking for have been pegged to the Consumer Price Index, which is about 6 percent over three years.

The one exception to the 6 percent rise is resident commuter tickets, which would see an increase of 4 percent, Mr. Hunt said.

The hikes would add a dollar to the one-way cash fare to $11 and raise the round trip cash fare from $15 to $16.

A book of 10 Island resident one-way tickets, now $49, would go up to $52 if the rate increases is approved.

Island resident round trip ticket books would go from $52 to $55 and the Shelter Island resident commuter rate would rise from $26 a week to $27. The passenger rate will remain the same, Mr. Hunt said, and there will be a cap on charging passengers in vehicles at three.

The process to raise fares begins with a proposal by the ferry company “seeking relief,” as it’s called. An assessment by the Suffolk County Budget Review Office is presented and then the subject is aired at public hearings.

Mr. Schneiderman said there would most likely be public hearings in Hauppauge at the Legislature and one in Riverhead.

A “certificate of necessity,” or a “time is of essence procedure,” “will be introduced to circumvent a legislative committee hearing and [the fare hike proposal] would go directly to the floor of the legislature,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

He was confident the fare hike would be approved by the county executive and be in place for the July 4 weekend.
“That’s a home run,” Mr. Hunt said.

This is the first fare increase asked for by North Ferry since 2011. The company has lost $613,429 since 2008, for many reasons, Mr. Hunt said, including the recession, the vagaries of oil prices, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, which cut ridership, and a brutal 2013-2014 winter.

One result of operating at a loss has been keeping the infrastructure at status quo .

“Because we’ve been financial distress, we’ve been deferring maintenance we should have been doing,” Mr. Hunt said. “That doesn’t have a happy ending. We’ve been kicking maintenance and capital improvements down the road and we want to remedy that before it gets us.”

What’s needed is, among another things, bulkhead work on the Greenport side, maintaining “slip pilings” and paving the Shelter Island and Greenport plazas. On the last improvement, Mr. Hunt said, “I’m reminded of that by our customers, sometimes at high volume.”

Also needed is introducing an electronic system to collect fares and new turnstiles on the Greenport side, Mr. Hunt said.
“We want to reinvest in the ferry company and right the ship,” he added.