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A Big Hit

The Providence-to-Newport ferry has been a huge success since it was launched on July 1st - with 12,000 tickets sold in the first three weeks. But the service relies on a $500,000 federal grant to heavily subsidize ticket prices. This week we take a ride and ask the Department of Transportation: is there is any scenario where it wouldn’t have to rely on taxpayer money to make it work?


Nearly half an hour before its first-run-of-the-day, the new Providence-to-Newport ferry is just about full. The 65-foot high-speed catamaran is docked at India Point and in its first three weeks of operation has proven to be quite a hit with Rhode Islanders and tourists alike.
After a few stragglers arrive to make the sellout official, the Ocean State backs away from the dock at 10:07 and everyone settles in on this near-perfect day for the hour-long ride and a highlight reel of Narragansett Bay scenery along the way.
Wind turbines lining the Providence River give away to more open waters in the upper bay. From Conimicut Point, the ferry cross over to the East Passage and within 30 minutes chugs by Prudence Island at a cruising speed of about 25 knots. A first glimpse of the Newport Bridge slowly comes into view.
Welcome to a pilot program that is the brainchild of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which took advantage of a half million federal grant to launch the service on July 1st, just two months after putting out a bid for service. 
Its 9-week run will end on Labor Day.
Alviti: ``We’re really pleased, Jim, with the acceptance and use of the ferry system.’’
D.O.T. Director Peter Alviti is keeping a close eye on the new service. And so far, he likes what he sees. Through the first three weeks nearly 12,000 trips have been logged, including more than two dozen sell outs.
Alviti says the idea for ferry service came out of some in-house meetings the department held last year. And it combines two goals.
Alviti: ``Let’s just not look at transportation as being something used to get from Point A to Point B, but also while we’re developing those transportation links, let’s look at the long-term economic benefit of having them.’’
The federal subsidy is officially called the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program - CMAQ for short -  and is aimed at getting cars off the street. So these vehicles, parked for free adjacent to the old Shooters nightclub on the Providence Waterfront, are cars that won’t be clogging the streets of Newport. As a longtime boater himself, Alviti knows there is another benefit for  hundreds of people going back and forth on Narragansett Bay every day.
Alviti: ``If you don’t have the luxury of having your own boat, there was really no way for people who live in Rhode Island, but more importantly tourists that came here, to get out and see one of the most beautiful wonders, natural wonders in this state.’’
The state is running three roundtrips a day Monday through Thursday and four roundtrips on Friday,  Saturday and Sunday.
But can this service survive without taxpayers underwriting the cost? Alviti says it will take some time - and an analysis of a season’s worth of data  - before he can make that determination.
RIPTA launched a similar ferry program a decade ago that had mixed results and ultimately ended because grant money to support it ran out.
What we do know is the ferry holds a maximum of 149 passengers, burning about 90 gallons of  fuel each way. And that the federal money is being used primarily to reduce the cost of the tickets.
Alviti: ``Let’s use the money to mitigate the cost of the ticket. And allow the private sector to respond. That if the state were making available say $500,000 worth of federal funding, what is your proposal in terms of amount of service that’s going to be provided to us and the cost of the tickets?’’
Seakstreak, a company that runs ferry systems from New Jersey to Nantucket, won the bid. The trip from Providence to Newport is $10 each way for adults and $5 each for children, senior citizens and the disabled passengers.
By comparison, The Point Judith-to-Block Island high speed ferry is double that at $20 one-way and the Newport-to-Block Island high speed ferry is $25.50 each way.’’
Hummel: ``Is there a scenario that your people have thought about where this could operate without a taxpayer subsidy?’’
Alviti: ``I’ll tell you, with the federal money available for this I don’t see any reason that we would want to forgo it, because the more we can drive down tickets prices…’’
Hummel: ``I understand the federal money is there, but at some point let’s say you’re two years into it and the feds say: `This money’s not available.’
Alviti: ``By the way then we’ll have to reassess. And I think as time goes on we’ll be accumulating information to be able to show whether or not we can operate independently with this. Making an assessment as to whether or not this is a program that’s working, not working, whether it’s costing too much, costing too little, whether the tickets are fairly priced, unfairly price?’’
We decide to take the 10 a.m. ferry. With a 15-knot headwind it’s blustery on the upper deck but smooth for the passengers down below. After passing by the Newport Bridge we head straight into the harbor, then snake along a packed waterfront with a front-row view of a variety of vessels, before arriving at Perotti Park in downtown Newport.
Within 10 minutes, the return trip is underway for a dozen passengers. We pass Goat Island, then head for the Newport Bridge again, going by Rose Island and its iconic lighthouse. After crossing underneath the bridge, it’s full steam ahead. We see the the Mount Hope Bridge on the right and the Providence skyline comes into view about 15 minutes later.
With a trailing wind the ride is a bit calmer, the view equally spectacular.
Alviti: ``There could be ways of making kinds of ferry systems function independently. The variable is the ticket price, right? That’s always where the end product shows up.’’
Hummel: ``Because if it goes to $15, $18 then does your ridership go down and you’re not making the money you need to cover your costs.’’
Alviti: `` Correct, correct. The companies that do this for a living have good sensibilities about this. They do it elsewhere up and down the Eastern Seaboard  so you get a lot of feedback from them on how that would work. But for now with the availability of these additional federal funds I’ll always view those as something to use to reduce the ticket prices, primarily, to make it more accessible to Rhode Islanders who can’t get out there.’’
Alviti says he would like to see the service expand next summer.
Alviti: ``Absolutely, not only from a time stand point, but for the number of rides. Maybe begin to look at targeting special events; there are events like the Folk Festival coming up and the Wickford Art Show and, you know, the Bristol 4th of July parade.’’
The director added the DOT has already gotten inquiries from three businesses wanting to set up shop at the ferry landing. They include a food service business and a dinner cruise company.
So will this work financially in the long run?
Alviti: ``I’m very optimistic about this. The fact that the seats are sold out are telling us part of that story; pretty subjective at this point. What I’d like to do is have more objective information and data to be able to make those financial decisions as to whether or not there is a return in terms of tourism or economics.’’
On Narragansett Bay, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.

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