For nearly two centuries a public ferry has crossed the Mississippi between the French Quarter and Algiers. Now sleek new catamarans zip back and forth, making the passage faster and more reliable.
- by Kim Ranjbar
- photographs by Ellis Anderson
For many years, a lumbering, aging ferry carried commuters across the Mississippi River between Algiers and the French Quarter. The slow pace of the crossing caused some Quarter residents to joke that taking a bottle of wine and a few sandwiches aboard made for a cheap – and leisurely – dinner cruise.
With the new speedy ferries in service now, riders will be hard pressed to finish a cup of coffee between the river’s two banks. Yet, the romance of the ride remains.
Ferries have a long history in the Crescent City. According to FriendsoftheFerry.org, the first public ferry in New Orleans was established in 1827 when “Louisiana legislature granted August Coycault and Barthelemy Gosselin a contract to operate a steam ferry” which ran from the foot of Patterson Street in Algiers Point to Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
Over the years, several different services developed and at one point in the 1930s, there were six ferries serving the area.
In 1958 the Greater New Orleans Bridge, or the Crescent City Connection as it's now called, was built and ferry ridership dropped significantly. However, even with a reduced number of passengers, the ferries have remained a valued form of transportation “bridging” the neighborhoods on the east and west banks of the Mississippi River.
In October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority put two brand new, multi-million dollar boats into service, replacing the 41-year-old Col. Frank X. Armiger, an aging vessel inherited from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development in 2014. RTA 1 and 2, as the sleek, new ferries are called, cost approximately $19 million – paid for with a grant from the Federal Transit Administration and state funds. Each aluminum catamaran can carry up to 150 passengers.
Craig Toomey, Director of Marine Operations for the RTA (recently promoted to Director of Emergency Management), is excited about the future of New Orleans's ferries and believes the boats to be a much-needed asset to our public transportation system.
“They're made of aluminum so they're lighter, compared to the Armiger which is made of steel,” says Toomey. “Because they're lighter, it's less costly to run because they don't use as much fuel. They're also easier to maintain, which I think has improved the reliability of the service.”
Toomey says that LabMar Ferry Services, the marine operator contracted to run the ferry service, loves operating the new ferry boats. Reliability is at 96% – a vast improvement over the Armiger – and the trip across the river is faster which translates to more regular service. The new boats are also easier to maintain.
“The service in 2012 was notorious for being unreliable,” explains Toomey. “'Is the ferry running today?' was the big question. I'm hoping the answer from here on out will be 'Yes!'”
Due to COVID-19, public transit nationwide was negatively impacted and the ferry was no exception. In 2021, ridership for both the Chalmette and the Algiers ferries fell to a total 400,000 riders, down from a million in 2019.
This year, ridership is soaring again, although the 2022 totals will for the Algiers ferries will reflect that RTA 2 was out of commission in the first months of this year after being damaged during Hurricane Ida. The boat spent several months being repaired by the ferry builders, MetalShark, at their shipyard in Alabama. Toomey says that it's back in service and good as new – and notes that RTA now has a plan to protect the boats from future storms.
There are other plans in the works for the future of the ferries. In an effort to move towards cashless transactions, the terminals are installing ticket vending machines, a move that will also speed overall service. Plus, as any veteran user of RTAs services will know, there's an app called GoMobile allowing passengers a convenient way to pay for their way online.
“It's better if you can pay your fare earlier instead of having to wait and do it on the boat” says Toomey.
Just last year, the Regional Planning Commission published the New Orleans 2020 Bike Map which includes the ferry services into the route.
“Bikers, people that want to exercise and take the trail and the levee, can easily just ride to Canal terminal and jump on the ferry,” says Toomey. “We've got 24 spots to park your bike in the back of the ferry, so that's kind of nice for the [community's] health and well-being.”
The city's many festivals booting up again will also boost ridership in 2022, allowing people from Algiers to travel over to the French Quarter for events like Jazz Fest and French Quarter Festival.
“We've been working with them [French Quarter Festival] so we can have riders come over to the Quarter from Algiers, making sure it well organized and structured for the fest,” says Toomey.
In other exciting news, the RTA received a $5.7 million federal grant a couple of months ago to build a new ferry-landing barge in Algiers Point. The new barge will be the same design as the Chalmette Ferry Terminal which was installed a few years ago. Building the barge will likely cause disruptions to service in the next couple of years, an added grumbling point for critics of the expensive new boats.
“Having these smaller, more agile, easier to maintain boats seems to be the way to go on the Algiers Point/Canal Street terminals in terms of just being more reliable and actually serving as a strong transit path,” says Toomey.
The actual ferry ride one-way now takes only about three minutes, a bit longer including boarding to disembarking. While many will use the ferry as job transportation, tourists and locals looking for a mini-adventure can ply the waters of the Mississippi on these sleek and speedy catamarans, experiencing the river for a small investment in time and just a few dollars for fare.
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Though she was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kim Ranjbar felt New Orleans calling her home as soon as she hit puberty. A graduate of granola U (a.k.a. Sonoma State University), Kim took her passion for the written word and dragged it over 2000 miles to flourish in the city she loves. Check out her blog at http://sucktheheads.com/ or contact her at email@example.com.
At French Quarter Journal, we cover the neighborhood as a community – not a commodity.