Coronavirus Pandemic, Stay-At-Home Orders Cut Into Ferry Ridership

File image courtesy Roland Arhelger

Published Apr 30, 2020 7:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

The coronavirus epidemic has affected all forms of passenger transportation, from bus systems to airlines to cruise ships. Ferries are no exception, and ferry agencies across the United States have reported plummeting ridership due to the outbreak and related stay-at-home orders. Aboard the Washington State Ferries, traffic is at the lowest level seen since the 1950s, with ridership down by nearly three quarters, according to the Kitsap Sun. In New York, the ever-popular Staten Island Ferry has experienced an 85 percent reduction in foot traffic. Many operators have been forced to respond with service reductions or alterations in order to keep costs in control.

New York service reductions

New York City is adjusting its ferry services due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the effects of the coronavirus shutdown on the city's finances. Among other changes, the Staten Island Ferry's service frequency has been reduced, reflecting lower demand. 

“What we found, of course, was a massive drop in ridership in the midst of this crisis. I mean, it’s truly massive and they were running boats with very few people on them. So, we’re trying to just create a consistent schedule that will be the one people can depend on going forward,” said mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this month. 

The ferry's nighttime service has been cut back, and its daytime operations now offer hourly (rather than half-hourly) sailings. In addition, lower-level boarding at the Staten Island end of the run will be suspended beginning May 1. 

The recently-implemented NYC Ferry system of small passenger ferries will also see cuts, de Blasio announced this week. NYC Ferry was not affected by the first round of budget reductions announced earlier this month, but the mayor said Tuesday that "there will be cuts to NYC Ferry that will certainly be reflected in the next stage of the budget process."

North Carolina reduces Outer Banks ferry service

The North Carolina Department of Transportation's ferry division announced Tuesday that it is canceling the summer contract for the Okracoke Express ferry, a passenger-only vessel that runs a seasonal route in the Outer Banks

The passenger ferry was introduced in 2019 as an alternative for people traveling between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Nearly 29,000 people used the passenger ferry last summer. Ferry officials expect to decide whether to resume the passenger ferry service in 2021 in the coming months.

The department's regular car ferry service will continue operation on the same route; passengers are asked to maintain six feet of distance or to stay inside their cars. 

The Alaska Marine Highway System has received $10 million in support as part of the federal government's coronavirus relief efforts. The initial amount announced by Alaska's government was $5 million, but the number was revised Monday. 

The funding is a component of a $29 million package from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration, and it is intended to assist rural area transit services. The Alaska Marine Highway System provides essential access for parts of Southeast Alaska lacking road connections to the outside world. 

Four AMHS ferries are still undergoing a winter overhaul period, according to Alaska State Ferries, leading to a delay in the resumption of full summer-season service. 

"Currently the Columbia, Kennicott and Tustumena are all in the completion phase of their overhauls. The extensive steel repair project and overhaul of LeConte has gone smoothly and the vessel is scheduled to re-float this week," the agency told media.