NEW ORLEANS -- The ferry system in New Orleans is close to getting a new operator and a new lease on life.
The Regional Transit Authority and its transit manager Veolia Transportation have reportedly agreed in principal to take over the ferries.
The state has been running the boats on a limited basis since this past summer.
"I believe the RTA board approved the contract between Veolia and the RTA and last night they also approved the contract between the RTA and the state," said state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers. "The deal is not inked yet, but we're very, very close."
Since Veolia is a foreign company, it still needs a waiver from the Federal Maritime Administration to operate in U.S. waters. Heitmeier said Veolia's attorneys expect to receive that waiver by the end of the year.
If that's the case, he said Veolia could be operating the boats by the end of January.
"I feel very optimistic that this is going to happen and that we would have the extended hours for the Canal Street. I believe we're talking about 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.," Heitmeier said.
The Algiers-Canal Street Ferry now operates until 6:45 p.m. weeknights and 8 p.m. on the weekend. Algiers Point business owners say the ferries used to run through midnight and the reduced schedule is hurting their bottom line.
"We've had people come here and actually cancel when they got here because I told them about the ferry and they just canceled," said Kevin Herridge, who owns the House of the Rising Sun Bed and Breakfast on the Algiers Point. "They want to go out for a meal in the evening or go and see a band. They can't do that and be home again by 7 o'clock. People are going out at 7 o'clock, not coming home."
Russell Blanchard said he depends on the ferries to bring his Algiers Point tour business customers across the Mississippi.
"The current hours have been unsustainable for both residents and businesses, so the news that there actually a deal moving forward is a good step," said Blanchard.
Both men say Algiers lost residents because of an uncertain future for the ferries. Earlier this year, the state threatened to stop ferry operations because of a lack of funding.
"We've lost a lot of people here that have been renters and they moved across the river because they can't get to work on time or they finish late at night and they can't get back," said Herridge.
"It's great news knowing that they've reached an agreement and that the ferry will remain because that's going to make a lot people feel a lot better about not only renewing their leases, but continuing to operate their businesses and continuing to live in this neighborhood," said Blanchard.
The New Orleans City Council has already approved new fares to ride the ferry. Until now pedestrians rode for free.
Most riders will pay $2 per crossing, with daily and monthly passes available for the ferry and the RTA's bus and streetcar system.
Heitmeier said there is concern about a potential drop-off in ridership because of the new fares.
"Our concern, Veoilia and the RTA, what we're not sure of is the ridership," said Heitmeier. "Will the ridership be there because there will be a fee for ridership of the ferry where before it was free?"
The state is working on a way to help shield Veolia from potential business losses in the first few years of operation. Blanchard expects a drop-off, but he said a better business plan for the ferries could help bring new riders to the boats.
"The way to make up for that drop-off is with advertising and promoting the ferry as tourist attraction and promoting Algiers Point as a destination," said Blanchard.
Annette Watt rides the ferry just about every day. She said a modest fare is a small price to pay to keep the ferries and her way of life.
"It's just astonishing how dependent we are on the ferry and without it, well, Algiers Point would just become an inaccessible backwater," Watt said.
Heitmeier said ridership is key to expanding the ferry schedule through midnight.
"If there's no decrease in ridership, then yes, we will be able to expand the hours with the additional revenue we will receive," he said.
Veolia would also operate the Lower Coast Algiers to Chalmette Ferry.
A spokeswoman for the RTA released a statement saying, "At this time, RTA and Veolia do not have comment on this project."