The Hummel Report: The Newport Ferry’s Future

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 am 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.

Welcome to a pilot program that is the brainchild of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which took advantage of a $500,000 federal grant to launch the service on July 1, just two months after putting out a bid for service.

Its 9-week run will end on Labor Day.

DOT director Peter Alviti is keeping a close eye on the new service. And so far, he likes what he sees. Through the first month more than 15,000 trips were logged, including more than three 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: transportation and economic development.

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 the 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  the hundreds of people going back and forth on Narragansett Bay every day.

“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 natural wonders in this state,” he said.

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. The federal money is being used primarily to reduce 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 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.

Jim Hummel: Is there a scenario that your people have thought about where this could operate without a taxpayer subsidy?

Peter 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 we can drive down ticket prices.

JH: 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.”

PA: Then we’ll have to reassess. And I think as time goes on we’ll be accumulating information to show whether we can operate independently with this. We’ll make an assessment as to whether this is a program that’s working, not working, whether it’s costing too much, costing too little, whether the tickets are fairly priced or unfairly priced.

Alviti says he would like to see the service expand next summer. “Absolutely, not only from a time standpoint, but for the number of rides. Maybe we’ll begin to look at targeting special events; there are events like the Folk Festival and the Wickford Art Show and the Bristol 4th of July parade.’’

The director added that 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?

“I’m very optimistic about this,” he said. “The fact that the seats are sold out are telling us part of that story; it’s pretty subjective at this point. I’d like to have more objective information and data to make those financial decisions as to whether there is a tourism or economic return.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.

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