February 10, 2008

If There's No Free Ride, then Ride Away

Justin Katz

Maybe it's my irredeemable conservatism, but something about the news that the Providence-Newport ferry will be giving its swansong rides this year doesn't quite make sense to me:

The state's popular high-speed ferry from Providence to Newport, a breezy way to see the Bay from one end to the other, will end this fall, Rhode Island Public Transit Authority officials say.

The cause is the expiration of the last of a series of federal grants that the authority has used, sometimes imaginatively, to keep the seasonal service going. ...

Ridership hit 47,002 last year, its highest, he said. ...

The adult fare this season will be $8 one way and $16 for a roundtrip. Meanwhile, the federal government is paying $575,000 per year, Moscola said, for a total of $5.17 million. The operating loss last year was $107,000, according to preliminary RIPTA figures.

Adding the feds' contribution and last year's operating loss leaves RIPTA $682,000 short. Divided among last year's ridership, that's $14.51 per person. The article reads as if "ridership" measures either tickets or people, so the cost per one-way trip would actually be less. If it's such a wonderful ride, why not try increasing the ticket price?

Why, put another way, do folks around here seem to look at everything as subsidized perks that must be financed by others rather than as valuable services for which users should be willing to pay?

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

maybe ripta can sell the boat to a private company for a dollar and he private company will make a profit at running it...its the rhody way....

Posted by: johnpaycheck at February 10, 2008 3:56 PM

Actually, I was thinking somewhat along the lines of johnpaycheck.

Is there a market for this at a fare that would make the operator a profit?

Isn't there some way that RIPTA can go out to bid on this to see if there are any private operators interested in taking the route over?

Maybe they've already explored this, but if not, it seems pretty foolish to just shut it down without any further consideration of alternatives.

Posted by: brassband at February 10, 2008 4:52 PM

It certainly makes more sense to sell this operation than to sell a bridge.

Posted by: Andrew at February 10, 2008 5:12 PM

But selling bridges makes for easier jokes...

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 10, 2008 5:14 PM

It figures that the only RIPTA service that I've actually enjoyed using (read: not afraid to use) is likely going away. It's stated raison d'etre was to take cars off the road, thereby cutting down on pollution, etc. However, besides serving regular commuters, it's also been a very nice service to have for day trippers, to go from Providence to Newport for fun during the summer months.

I agree with the first few commenters, that it seems like more effort could be put into determining if there is a market for the service, at a price that they would have to charge in order to break even or make a profit. The problem with RIPTA in general, is that they ignore the idea of the market setting prices -- based on the concept of supply and demand -- and regularly set prices too low too support all of their services -- then they wonder why they always seem to "lose" money.

If there was a will on the part of RIPTA to privatize the ferry service, then it would and could probably happen. However, perhaps they are afraid of establishing a precedent, because other RIPTA services, or perhaps RIPTA itself, could be then be privatized.

Posted by: Will at February 10, 2008 8:22 PM

here is where i differ from a lot of other people who think in conservative terms-i really support public transportation,particularly metros and streetcars/trolleybuses for reasons of relieving road congestion,reducing pollution and getting more usable srevice time per vehicle over the long term-the lack of affordable public transportation is largely responsible for the difficulty of many inner city residents getting to the palces where available work has moved to in the last 40 years or so-chicago,philadelphia,toronto,and san francisco have understood this

Posted by: joe at February 10, 2008 9:45 PM

I tend to doubt there is a private company that can do it for a profit. Even assuming you want to operate at dead even you'd have to increase the far by much more than $15/person since the increased price will likely drive ridership down. At $30/round trip it isn't exactly economical, it just saves a little car time (time that you then burn waiting for/running to catch the ferry).

I hate to see public transit go, I'd even suggest operating the ferry at a loss like we do the rest of RIPTA, but if it goes it goes.

I'd also like to respond to Will. 1 - Try riding RIPTA, it is safe despite public perception. I've ridden most routes, no problems. The worst was 60 Newport/Prov with drunken JW,RWU, and/or Salve kids and even they weren't all that hard to handle. 2 - Privatizing RIPTA would be a disaster and a failure. The reason we have RIPTA in the first place is because the private bus companies were tanking left and right. Absent the State stepping in and purchasing the last 1 or 2 (I forget the names), there would be no regular bus transit in RI and we'd be short a few thousand residents who would otherwise have found themselves unable to get around the State. Not everything works better when privatized, RI's bus system being one of those things. 3 - if the "market" set RIPTA's prices then you'd be looking at $10 fares. The primary ridership cannot afford the rate hikes that would be necessary. Thus you'd have fewer riders, requiring an even higher fare, and you'd wind up pricing the system out of existence. It is better for everyone to subsidize the system because otherwise you lose all the benefits these Citizens provide - especially since many of them work at some of our major companies (which we conveniently draw bus routes to service at shift changes), which you would know if you rode the buses.

Posted by: Mach at February 11, 2008 9:32 AM



  1. Current auto-fuel prices, and
  2. The price/availability of parking in Newport in the summertime
...I think that somewhere in the $20-$30 range for a round trip makes economic sense for a passenger.

Posted by: Andrew at February 11, 2008 9:52 AM

Bus route #60 Prov/Newport = $3 round trip. Even a day of parking in Prov so you can take the bus is like $12 at the mall. That makes $15 round trip, add the 2 kids and the spouse and it is $24 round trip for the whole family and the buses leave every hour. Whats the cost for the fam on the ferry privatized? About $80 bucks.

24 versus 80

The ferry makes no sense.

Posted by: Mach at February 11, 2008 10:17 AM

Maybe if RIPTA stopped giving away bus passes to people that then turn around and sell them for $20 right in Kennedy Plaza, they could shore up some of their losses.

Posted by: Greg at February 11, 2008 10:54 AM


Last I checked the operating loss was in the millions. People hawking monthly passes is NOT the reason RIPTA operates at a loss.

The (mis)perception that RIPTA is dangerous, full of undesirables, uncomfortable, or "not as cool as driving my own car" is probably much more of a problem than people flipping their passes for a few bucks.

Maybe if people actually rode the damn bus for once instead of just judging it or condemning it they'd have a much different perception. I find that very unlikely. Some of the loudest critics that I've spoken with are people who don't even have the balls to ride the bus and test their own preconceived notions.

Posted by: Mach at February 11, 2008 1:22 PM


1. Every penny counts.

2. My wife rides the bus twice daily. Safety isn't really her issue. For her birthday, she's getting a cellphone jammer.

Posted by: Greg at February 11, 2008 1:40 PM

1 - Agreed, but it isn't going to solve the problem. Besides, the alternative is to make them user-specific and that means increased costs on the pass itself and administratively.

2 - Glad to hear it. We need more people like her if RIPTA is going to start operating in the black. Absent a huge change in PR, I don't see it happening. People are still largely afraid to ride the bus for no good reason.

Posted by: Mach at February 11, 2008 2:17 PM

Sure, it won't SOLVE the problem, but too many in this state's government heartily believe that the small ticket items can afford to be ignored exactly because 'they won't solve the problem'.

Well, if you start paying attention to all the little things, suddenly you have made a big difference.

I'd ride RIPTA if they had a train that went from Providence to the station in West Kingston...

Posted by: Greg at February 11, 2008 2:28 PM


I see that and would rely on my initial statements in that it isn't going to save RIPTA and there is a cost involved in eliminating that same cost which may/may not eat up any savings.

Unfortunately a commuter rail doesn't seem to be a viable option at this point. The car is too popular, the rail damend too small, and the current public transit is underutilized outside Metro Providence (the park n rides get some ridership, but they're not at a capacity that would support rail service).

I'd like to see rail if it would sustain itself, but I don't see that happening at the moment. Partly due to lack of riders and partly due to cost of construction and maintenance. Sadly, RIPTA's problems have been around for years and we've seen some improvement since the Bev Scott days (she had vision that I wish we still had today) but not enough. Moscola isn't bad, but Scott was better and we're just still experiencing the same problems, especially on the PR side.

Posted by: Mach at February 11, 2008 2:54 PM

Simply eliminating the free rides costs nothing. Anybody that needs to take the bus can afford the pittance that it costs to ride. Give up two packs of cigarettes and you can pay for a week's worth of rides.

Posted by: Greg at February 11, 2008 3:08 PM

My understanding was that the free rides were for disabled and elderly persons who were already on certain types of benefits. Good luck getting at that grouping.

Besides, for those of us who don't smoke, $15 bucks can be a decent amount of change that isn't wasted on butts. For those who have extremely limited incomes, $15/week can be a big deal - especially when you rely solely on the bus for a few trips a day which can get you into the $30/wk and above range. I tend to think that those selling the passes are in the minority, so why punish most people who rely on the service just to save some bucks on the few who exploit it?

Keep in mind, those who rely on the buses are probably the least likely to cause harm to them or disrupt them. Do we really want to kick off the people who probably view RIPTA most favorably? I don't think that is what RIPTA needs at this point.

Posted by: Mach at February 11, 2008 3:48 PM

Mach, I think you need to look more closely at the people who are getting those free passes. It's a LOT more than you think.

Posted by: Greg at February 11, 2008 3:49 PM

Can you give me some direction then? Or is a simple Google all that is required?

Posted by: Mach at February 11, 2008 4:05 PM

Someone actually cited that data a week or so back. I'll look around for it but it was WAY more than people who actually need it.

Posted by: Greg at February 11, 2008 5:37 PM

Thanks Greg. I'd be surprised if it was more than those who needed it, I didn't see many flashed on the bus at all, but I've been wrong before.

Posted by: Mach at February 11, 2008 7:11 PM

"I'd also like to respond to Will. 1 - Try riding RIPTA, it is safe despite public perception. I've ridden most routes, no problems. The worst was 60 Newport/Prov with drunken JW,RWU, and/or Salve kids and even they weren't all that hard to handle."

As of the mid 1990's I did ... I went to RWU. I tried the bus for a year. From what I was told, I was on one of the "better" routes. If it was safe, I certainly didn't feel it. During the say, it wasn't too bad, but late at night, it was a whole other story. I don't remember the route number, but I took it from the park and ride in Barrington to RWU in Bristol and vice-versa, so maybe it could have been the #60. I never really got acquainted with the whole bus numbering thing. I could barely figure out the bus schedule or how they arrived at the fare lol.

At least as of when I used it (which was the last time I used it), I was often one of the few people on the bus actually paying a fare with real money. None of this surprises me at all. Usually the other paying costumers on my route were the 5 or 6 other college students.

Back to the ferry, yes there is a problem if you directly compare the ferry service to the regular bus service, then it might not be economically viable without some subsidy. However, the ferry caters to people who might not otherwise use RIPTA transportation, and well as occasional riders like tourists. Therefore, it is something of a "value added" service where people might expect to pay more for what is a pretty nice service.

Posted by: Will at February 11, 2008 8:50 PM

RIPTA should look at Hawaii.

On the Island of Oahu (3/4 size of RI land mass), Hawaii the public bus transit system (“The Bus”) won awards as the best transit system in the United States. All one-way fares are $2 with free transfers including the commuter (“The Boat”) high speed ferries (1 hour) to Aloha Towers (downtown Honolulu) connecting to dedicated bus routes and tourist trolleys that support the tourist districts, sight-seeing, Waikiki Beach and world’s largest outdoor shopping mall Ala Moana Shopping Center and Transit Center. There are special discounted passes available. I am 32 miles outside of Waikiki Beach, Honolulu and “The Bus” provides an express and local scheduled every 30 min at my bus stop.

Hawaii is embarking on construction (2009) of a 20 mile (about $200 million per mile) East-to-West high speed light rail elevated train system supported by a .05% tax added to current 4% General Excise Tax which will support new City of Kapolei and University of Hawaii West Campus, International Airport, Downtown Honolulu, University of Hawaii Manoa (main campus) and Waikiki Beach with stops in between, free parking and $2 one-way fares.

Private 3-hour high-speed super ferry service to other islands with free parking is $39 per person one-way plus additional charge for vehicle and regular 1-hour jet airplane service is $29-to-$79 one-way with $5 per day parking.

Posted by: Ken at February 12, 2008 2:00 AM


A lot has changed since 1995, I'd give the buses another look.

Fares are easy, 1.50 one-way, extra 10 cents if you need a transfer. Not sure of the numbering back then, but that is currently the #60 route. At night, that route has college kids on the inbound from about 6-8 and college kids on the last two outbounds (drunk by this point). That is about as bad as it gets. The next closest thing is riding a Prov bus in the morning with the school kids, and that isn't dangerous, just loud and cramped.

If you didn't feel safe, I'd have to ask why? Did something happen to you? Incidents on buses are rare, more likely to happen off buses and even those aren't common. And the KPlaza problems are usually solved pretty quickly by the officers stationed there and about as bad as that gets is two school kids fighting. If you don't happen to be in a Providence high school, chances are nobody has any interest in even talking to you, nevermind fighting you.

Yes, the ferry caters to a different group. A group that will not sustain the ferry on any reasonable fare.

I still think you'd be lucky to pull $20+ fares per person, nevermind the $30+ roundtrip that Justin's calculations lead to (in reality even more because of reduced demand due to increased price). At that point it makes much more sense to drive and park if you know where to park in Newport. I mean, who wants to spend over $100 to bring a family of four to Newport for the day on transportation alone? Its absurd, especially given how much cheaper driving or taking the bus is.

Posted by: Mach at February 12, 2008 8:26 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Important note: The text "http:" cannot appear anywhere in your comment.