By Timothy Bolger
Ferry riders may soon pay a dollar more for each trip across the Great South Bay, if Suffolk County lawmakers grant a request by Fire Island’s largest ferry and lone water-taxi company.
Fire Island Ferries, the Bay Shore-based company serving the eight westernmost communities, requested an 11-percent fare hike, which would bring the current $17 round-trip fare to $19 and the current one-way fare from $9 to $10. The company’s water taxi arm requested an estimated 18-percent increase, with hikes varying with distance. The company petitioned the county for the fare hike in January with the goal of getting approval in time for Memorial Day.
“It’s been six years since we’ve had a rate increase,” said Tim Mooney, the company’s president, who spun his pitch as “fare relief” during a public hearing at the Suffolk County Legislature meeting in Riverhead on March 3. “I don’t know many other things that you can say that have had a fixed price for six years.”
If approved, the measure would make Mooney’s company the most expensive of the three ferry operators serving FI’s public. Last year, the Patchogue-based Davis Park Ferry Company, which also serves Watch Hill, was granted permission to increase its fares to match what Fire Island Ferries currently charges. The Sayville Ferry Service that caters to Fire Island Pines, Cherry Grove, Water Island and Sailor’s Haven charges $8.25 for an adult one way and $16 round trip. (Point ‘O Woods’ private ferry fares are not publicly available).
Mario Posillico, the Saltaire village administrator, was the only person who showed up to the hearing to voice opposition to the fare hike.
“The village questions whether the 11-percent rate increase requested is reasonable and justified to cover the increased cost of operations, particularly when there has been a significant decrease in the cost of fuel,” Posillico told the panel. He noted that the proposed increase, combined with the last 12-percent ferry fare hike in 2009 and another 10-percent spike in ’06, is about double the annual 2-percent consumer price index, the national standard for measuring price increases for the same time span. Posillico added, “This historical increase does not seem reasonable on its face.”
The ferry company’s auditors forecast a net loss of $517,314 this year without the fare hike and the water taxi company expects a $262,241 net loss for ’15 with the current pricing structure, according to financial analyses the companies provided in their applications. Mooney told the legislature that increased payroll, insurance, pension and tax costs are the reason his companies are requesting permission to charge their riders more. And the water taxi company is still expecting to suffer losses, even it gets approval for its new fares, which include a $2 increase on the minimum adult fare of $7 and a $25 increase on $150 unscheduled cross-bay water taxi rides.
“We remain concerned about raising fares and their impact on ridership,” the water taxi company said in its written request. “While our rate request keeps us in the red we believe that it represents the most practical increase that allows us to maintain comparable ridership. To combat the projected losses we will continue to improve our marketing, advertising and promotion programs to increase ridership, work with our Long Island/Fire Island business partners and increase our efforts to reduce expenses.”
The county’s budget review office will crunch the numbers independently and issue a report before the public hearing is likely to be closed, after giving another opportunity for riders to testify, at the legislature’s March 24 meeting. The transportation committee will then consider the motion at its following meeting on April 20. If the committee approves it, the motion will be up for a final vote before the full legislature at its April 28 general meeting.
When the ferry fare hike proposal came up at the Ocean Beach village board meeting three days after the legislature discussed the idea, Mayor James Mallott did not sound concerned. That’s because the 10-year lease that the village and ferry company signed in 2011 includes a provision allowing the village to increase rent 8.5-percent if there’s a $1-per-trip fare hike, plus a 21-cent increase on the $1 that the village gets for each 1 a.m. ferry passenger, according to a copy of the lease obtained by the News. The village currently gets an annual 2-percent rent increase over the base $490,000 rent in the first year.
“I’m not inclined to scream about this because we would get part of it,” Mallott told residents at the meeting. Meanwhile, the ferry company specifically noted the Ocean Beach lease in their request to the legislature. Mooney wrote in his request: “This new agreement includes a substantial increase in rent, which has added significantly to operating costs since our last request.”