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More ferry figures out

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City officials are expected to release September numbers for the ferry momentarily. Meantime, last week they filled in a few blanks on the July-August report. Among the new pieces of information:

• The shortfall in riders for July and August was more than 81,000. July's projected ridership had been 74,827; the actual, 26,320. August's projection: 78,684; the actual, 45,481.

The business plan had assumed that the ferry would sail at 75 to 80 percent capacity. In July, the average trip sailed at 30 percent capacity; in August, 52 percent.

Ferry board officials say they hope to complete the 2006 budget in December, and ridership projections are expected to be lower than those in the 2005 plan, which means that revenue projections will be lower.

Among the hurdles the ferry continues to face: "pilotage fees," a cost that the ferry's original owners said contributed to their problems. Unless the ferry flies an American flag --- meaning that it is registered as a US ship --- it must pay pilotage fees. To be registered as a US ship, all of the boat's captains must be American, and there's a shortage of trained captains in this country.

When the city bought the ferry, officials seemed confident that it would be able to sail under an American flag right from the start, but that didn't happen. Some Americans are in training now, and city officials say they hope there'll be enough trained for the ferry to fly an American flag in the spring.

The city had also hoped to get revenue from trucks using the ferry; that, too, hasn't happened.

But the most serious immediate problem, presumably, is the possibility of exhausting the ferry's line of credit: $40 million secured from the Australian government. The city used $32 million of that to buy the boat, $1.3 million to repair the engines, and another $4.2 million to cover the loss from February 28 through August 31. That left only $2.5 million.

The ferry is certain to show a loss in September, October, November --- and on through the winter. It seems likely, then, that the ferry board will have to find additional financing. And it will have to base its case on the board's conviction that in 2006, there'll be enough riders to show a far stronger picture.

City officials say that expenses have been in line with projections, despite the rising cost of fuel. The problem has been low ridership. Whatever the September figures show, and whatever the 2006 budget predicts, the ferry board and Bay Ferries will have to find a way to attract more riders. That means marketing. And that means money.

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