Falling ridership during COVID puts ferry system budgets in jeopardy

Jumbo Mark II-class ferry Tacoma
The Jumbo Mark II-class Tacoma docks in downtown Seattle after a run from Bremerton, Wash., in July 2019. Ridership across the Washington State Ferries fleet dropped 41 percent in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As ferry services cope with declining ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic, government agencies and private operators plan for an uncertain future.

Globally, ferry ridership dropped as much as 90 percent due to the pandemic, according to Interferry, the international industry trade group. The Passenger Vessel Association reported a similar impact last year on the U.S. ferry industry. The PVA, which represents 300 passenger vessel operators with about 2,000 vessels, estimated the economic damage from March 1 to Labor Day ranged from $3 billion to $5 billion.

Washington State Ferries (WSF), the nation’s largest ferry operator, saw ridership plunge by 10 million customers in 2020, a drop of 41 percent from the previous year. Stay-at-home orders, remote work and decreased tourism resulted in the system’s lowest rider count since 1975, said Ian Sterling, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation. As a result, the ferry system reduced service.

For the first time since it began operations in 1951, WSF carried more vehicles (7.6 million) than people (6.4 million). The shift was due to the dramatic decline in walk-on customers on routes that serve downtown Seattle, as more people drove on board than walked because of the pandemic. Many Seattle residents work in the technology industry and shifted to work-at-home status during COVID shutdowns.

WSF has been gradually restoring sailings based on customer demand, funding and crew and vessel availability. Sterling said he expected the operator’s share of the state budget would be cut in the next funding cycle, which could force workers to take furlough days without pay.

“Over the next few years, things will be a little bit tighter,” he said. However, the ferry system expects to continue its electrification programs and the construction of new vessels, using funding from other sources.

The Victoria Clipper V service between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, shut down July 10 but was expected to resume in May 2021. The suspension of cross-border non-essential travel was crippling to the operator.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority reduced Boston ferry service in January as part of a $130 million cost-savings plan across all modes of transportation. The MBTA runs two ferry routes across Boston Harbor connecting the Charlestown Navy Yard, downtown Boston, Logan Airport and the islands of Hull and Hingham. The service, privately operated by Boston Harbor Cruises under contract, uses two MBTA-owned ferries and additional vessels owned by BHC.

At the end of 2020, ferry ridership was approximately 12 percent of pre-COVID levels, averaging seven passengers per boat. Riders have either bus or commuter rail service as an alternative, the MBTA said. Even if ferry demand returns to 80 percent of normal by next fall, the agency said losses could exceed $300 million unless it begins cutting costs.

On the routes managed by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), ridership dropped 90 percent due to COVID. The system reduced service to commuter hours only and cut weekend service. In November, the agency dropped the fare on the San Francisco Bay route to $1 in part to lure back tourist passengers, but the rising infection rate forced that deal to end on Dec. 1.

WETA’s service is funded primarily by fare revenues and bridge tolls. The agency has asked for $4 million in emergency funding from governmental sources to maintain operations.

Staten Island Ferry in New York City, a passenger-only service between the borough and Manhattan, operates nine vessels and carries 22 million people in a normal year. Ridership dropped 85 percent at one point during the pandemic and service was cut in response. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2021 budget included $5.5 million in reductions to overnight routes, but the ferry line landed $16.6 million in CARES Act reimbursements for operating expenses.

In North Carolina, the Ocracoke Express ferry, a summer-only passenger service for the Outer Banks, was canceled for the 2020 season. The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s regular car ferry service linking Hatteras and Ocracoke continued.

Tampa, Fla.-based Yacht StarShip, which also operates Pirate Water Taxi, laid off 90 percent of its 145 employees during the height of the COVID shutdowns.

Gary Wollenhaupt

By Professional Mariner Staff