Ferries Face Problems Caused By Rising Sea

Cars prepare to unload off the North Ferry. Jennifer Corr photo

By Jennifer Corr

During a quiet morning in North Haven, vehicles piled onto the South Ferry, which is headed to Shelter Island, which is separated from the rest of the East End by the Peconic Bay.

The only way of getting to or from Shelter Island is by boat, and for most people that means the ferry. It’s been that way since the 1700s.

Yet, as of late, The South Ferry, along with The North Ferry, which provides rides to and from Greenport, has had to adjust its operations in the growing wave of effects from climate change, including sea level rise. These adjustments include building a new, longer ramp that would connect with the road, even in cases of high or low tide, and raising the road itself.

“We have to deal with what’s happening in front of us,” Nicholas Morehead, the chief operating officer for The South Ferry, said in his office on Shelter Island. “And if the tides are higher, we have to work with that. And if the tides are higher because of climate change, we have to work with that.”

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, New York has experienced a foot of sea-level rise since 1900, mostly due to the expansion of warming ocean water.

In order to operate in cases of high tides, and even low tides, The South Ferry Company is planning on elongating the ramps, which would provide a better angle if a ferry gets too high or low, allowing vehicles to drive onto the ferry. A higher road is also in the works.

Because The South Ferry is a private company, it is not eligible for federal money allocated for ferries, meaning that any upgrades, including new ramps, would have to be paid for by the company. The South Ferry is planning to install new ramps, among other infrastructure changes, paid for by fare increases that went into effect on June 21. It was the first fare increase in nine years.

Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, who represents the South Fork and Shelter Island, addressed the South Ferry’s fare increase at a June 4 general meeting in Hauppauge. South Ferry Inc., by law, was required to hold a public hearing. The hearing was closed on June 18, with a stamp of approval from Ms. Fleming and County Executive Steve Bellone.

“I certainly recognize that the ferries are a critical part of our public transportation system,” Ms. Fleming said. “And I think both companies do an excellent job. So it is my goal to support them in any way I can. They’ve been very responsive from the community and constituent concerns around the fare hike, which I believe is reasonable. And those [fare hikes] are still structured to avoid burdening the locals …”

The South Ferry also plans on building a higher road leading up to the ferry. But since those roads are publicly owned, the company is hoping to receive money allocated to ferry companies from the federal government to fund that portion of the project.
According to Mr. Morehead, the president of the company, Cliff Clarke, has met with government officials to talk about the project, and has made a request for funding in Albany, which is currently being reviewed. The money has to be allocated by September, according to Mr. Morehead.

On Shelter Island, ferries are the main mode of transportation on or off the island, becoming a staple for the residents and emergency services.

“Really it’s the emergency services that have to get on and off that is the reason we cited for the necessity to have this,” Mr. Morehead said. “Failure is not an option, right? Like Apollo 13, we have to get them on and off the island.”

The ferries are also a lifeline for Shelter Island businesses like Marie Eiffel Market.

“We have our deliveries come on those ferries on a daily basis,” said Jason Eenney, who owns the market with his wife, Marie Eiffel.

Yet, when it comes to business, the cost of delivery trucks to ride the ferry is paid for by increasing the price of the goods.

“I think the average cost for a truck, if I’m not mistaken, is $60 to $90 dollars for a round trip, a day,” Mr. Eenney said. “So what happens, what people don’t understand, is all of our food that comes on those trucks is more expensive than it is in Greenport, because they [the vendors] add on every single item to cover the cost.”

Ms. Eiffel added that she can’t align her prices with Sag Harbor, noting that she is frustrated by customers who tell her she can set higher prices because “she has the audience for it.” When asked about the fare increases, Mr. Eenney and Ms. Eiffel said, “it’s fine,” as they understand that the ferry needs to cover the cost of maintenance.

“And that’s one of the primary reasons you need the public process,” Ms. Fleming said. “It has the effect of ensuring that the hike, any adjustments is reasonable. And that’s exactly why, because it’s clear that it’s an impact on businesses and riders.”

At the North Ferry, fare increases are not just a reaction to climate change, as the North Ferry has multiple ongoing infrastructure upgrades, such as bringing on a new ferry and other capital upgrades. However, a new ramp that would work in cases of higher tides is certainly a part of it.

During the fall, the North Ferry had to shut down its service twice for an hour each instance. Stella Lagudis, the general manager of the Heights Property Owners Corporation, which owns the North Ferry, said that these disruptive high tides used to happen once in a while, but now that service has been suspended twice in the fall, the company is taking the issue very seriously since it is a “critical transportation hub.”

“This [new ramp] would not have gotten done, at least now, if there wasn’t a need and the need is the rising tide, the need is the ramp has to be able to meet the boat so that cars can get on and off and passengers can get on and off,” Ms. Lagudis said.

The company has started bulkheading work in Greenport and will add the new ramps in the winter. Shelter Island ramps will follow. The North Ferry is also periodically discussing the project with the Department of Transportation, since the federal Highway Administration has money allocated to individual ferries around the country. However, there are strict corporate and project eligibility requirements to access the funds.
Ms. Fleming agreed that the North Ferry and South Ferry having to adjust their infrastructure to meet the demands of climate change is a representation of a wider issue, something she has noticed throughout the rest of the district, Suffolk County and on Long Island.

“We are seeing the effects in many ways, and they all have costs associated with them. So I think it’s very important for us policy makers to have a clear eye about what those costs could be and also do everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions,” Ms. Fleming said.