North Ferry seeks rate hike

PETER BOODY PHOTO | North Ferry’s Manhansett docks here on a rainy Wednesday.

Facing rising costs and a continuing drop in ridership, North Ferry Company officials on Monday said they had asked the Suffolk County Legislature to approve a rate increase that would raise revenues 7.8 percent. It would be the first rate hike for vehicles since June 2004, when the company was in the midst of a program to replace its fleet of small, aging boats with larger-capacity ferries.

Under the company’s proposal, same day round-trip tickets for non-residents would cost $15, up 15.3 percent from $13. The non-discounted one-way fare would go up $1 to $10 or 11 percent.

For Island residents, the price of a book of 10 round-trip tickets would rise from $48 to $52, 8.3 percent, or 20 cents per trip. The price of a five-day round-trip pass would rise from $22 to $26, up 18 percent, or 40 cents a trip. That would be the same $2.60-a-trip rate proposed for a book of 10 resident round-trip tickets. Six-day commuter passes would no longer be offered.

“We’re trying to have a standardized discount fare for all Shelter Islanders,” explained Bridg Hunt, manager of North Ferry. Mr. Hunt and Julie Ben-Susan, general manager of the ferry’s owner, the Shelter Island Heights Property Owners Corporation (HPOC), announced the rate proposal on Monday in an interview at the Reporter office.

Also under the rate proposal, the separate higher fare for SUVs would be eliminated, and the truck rate would apply to vehicles 22 feet long instead of 20. Modified vehicles — trucks and vans with extensions — would no longer qualify for discounted rates.

No change is proposed in the rates for foot passengers, which are $1.50 for residents who buy them in the ferry office and $2 for others. The walk-on rate last went up in 2006 to $2 for everyone but the county reduced it for residents in 2007 after a local outcry.

Because of higher costs and slumping ridership, the company believes “that we will not be able to fund ourselves through next spring, even if we have a good summer,” according to a prepared statement that Mr. Hunt submitted to the Reporter.

“There is no way we can control the volume of our traffic. It has declined significantly over the past six months, amplifying the impact of rising fuel prices,” the statement reads.

Mr. Hunt said the company was running in the red for the third year in a row, with the deficit this year currently at about $250,000. The company closed the gap in the past with operational cash flow and a loan from HPOC.

He and Ms. Ben-Susan blamed rising fuel costs, climbing health insurance premiums for employees, and a drop in ridership in all categories, including a 10 percent drop in truck traffic compared to last year.

Ferry rates in Suffolk County are regulated by the County Legislature. Mr. Hunt and Ms. Ben-Susan said they had met with County Legislator Ed Romaine, who represents Shelter Island’s district, and explained the company’s need for a rate increase.

Mr. Romaine could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Supervisor James Dougherty reported at Tuesday’s Town Board work session that Mr. Hunt and Ms. Ben-Susan had visited Town Hall to inform him of the rate proposal. He said that in his career as a lawyer and businessman in mergers and acquisitions he’d always asked to “see the financials” before judging a deal. He said he’d asked to see North Ferry’s books “and they looked like two people in white coats who had come to take me away.” He said the company considered its books “proprietary information.”

In addition to a public hearing before the Legislature in Hauppauge, the rate hike will be subject to a local hearing before the Shelter Island Ferry Advisory Committee. Mr. Hunt and Ms. Ben-Susan said they doubted either hearing would take place before mid-summer. They said a rate hike, if the Legislature approves one, probably would not take effect until September or October.

In the prepared statement, company officials said, “Please note the resident discount for round trips, to accommodate people who live on Shelter Island and must go off-island for select services, is significant. Residents will pay $2.60 per crossing. It costs North Ferry $7.16 for an average car to cross the bay. So, even with these increases, the resident and volume discount tickets are below cost, subsidized by the casual traveler (who will pay $10 for a one-way crossing) and commercial truck traffic.”

The total yield of the proposed increases would be $410,154, according to the company, up 7.8 percent from last year’s revenues of $5,229,709. Most of that additional revenue, more than $275,000, would come from non-discounted fares. No increase in revenues is proposed for trucks, for which rates vary by length.

The proposed increases would not affect current bicycle rates of $5 per trip, or $3 per trip with a commuter discount.

Although the ferry company’s 2006 rate increase for foot passengers sparked a backlash, its last increase for higher vehicle fares in 2004 did not prompt an outcry. The company by then had pleased critics of its long ferry lines with the addition of a new, larger boat that dramatically reduced waiting times. Officials said in 2004 the rate increase was needed to build a second big boat. The Legislature passed its request unanimously. The company proposed its controversial rate hike for foot passengers in 2006, saying it would help fund a third larger boat, which has since joined the fleet.