No opposition voiced to North Ferry rate request

No one spoke in opposition to North Ferry’s proposal for rate hikes at a local forum on the topic Thursday night, July 28. The Shelter Island Ferry Advisory Committee held the forum, which drew about 25 people and lasted only about 35 minutes.

Shelter Islanders who buy a commuter pass to go to the North Fork would pay an additional 18.2% for a five-day ticket if the Suffolk County Legislature approves North Ferry’s application.  That is the highest percentage increase of nine separate car-fare increases the ferry company is seeking.

Bridgford Hunt, manager of North Ferry, gave the reasons for the proposed increases  in an opening presentation. Over the last three years, he said, the company had been in a “really challenging economic environment, if not, the perfect storm.”

With the unusually cold weather in the first quarter of 2011, a spike in fuel prices, a decrease in commercial traffic and the completion of construction on County Road 39 — which alleviated a bottleneck on the South Fork that had prompted some New Yorkers with homes there to use the ferries — the company has taken a beating, Mr. Hunt said.

“I’m in a tight spot. If we don’t do something, we’re going to run out of money just for operations,” he said.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty said it had been helpful for him to look at North Ferry’s financial statements. He asserted that losses of more than $200,000 were a result of what he considered an accelerated 15-year depreciation schedule for the boat fleet and that “it’s not cash pouring out the door.”

Mr. Hunt said the losses were indeed on a cash basis, not the result of tax accounting. Mr. Dougherty replied, “These financials are a little confusing.”

Mr. Dougherty and each of the Ferry Advisory Committee members had to sign a confidentiality agreement before reviewing the financial documents, which the company had previously resisted releasing except to the county’s Budget Review Office. The BRO has recommended that the company’s rate request be granted.

Islanders and workers who pay resident or commuters ferry rates are subsidized by the higher fares paid by commercial traffic and casual riders, something the county has criticized in the past. But County Legislator Ed Romaine said at the forum he had always preferred a two-tiered rate schedule.

“What people don’t realize,” said Mr. Hunt, “is that our commuter traffic gets an additional subsidy. In order to carry those people at peak times — and many modes of transportation have a peak rate — we have to put on extra boats and extra crews. We are not asking for a peak rate; we’re just asking for parity,” Mr. Hunt told the audience and ferry panel.

Commuters would pay $2.60 per trip, up from $2.20, the same rate Island residents who purchase a book of 10 round-trip tickets would pay.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have Shelter Islanders subsidizing Shelter Islanders,” Mr. Hunt said. “The cornerstone of this application is to make it the same rate for every Islander, whether commuting to work, going to the doctor or buying groceries off-Island.”

The Ferry Advisory Committee will make a recommendation to the Suffolk County Legislature whether or not to approve the rate request.

A public hearing on the rate application slated by the Suffolk County Legislature for August 2 in Smithtown will likely be delayed.Legislator Romaine said he would call for an adjournment of the hearing so it could be held instead on Tuesday, August 16 at 2:30 in Riverhead, an easier trip for Islanders who wish to make comments.

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