St. John ferry restart now in hands of state

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 27, 2009



LAPLACE – A legal settlement between St. John Parish and the Archdiocese of New Orleans over use of a parcel of land needed for operation of the Reserve-Edgard ferry hinges on a state decision to keep the ferry in operation.

LaPlace attorney Kerry Brown, who is representing the parish, said a hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20 in Edgard to decide the next move in getting the ferry back on the water.

The legal battle deals with a 40-year-old agreement between the parish and St. John the Baptist Church in Edgard. Brown said the church is blocking efforts by Entergy to reposition a utility pole needed to power the ferry’s ramp and other traffic-control devices around the west bank landing.

Brown said for the archdiocese to sign off on an agreement with Entergy, the parish must show the archdiocese the state or the parish intends to operate the ferry.

The St. John ferry, which brings passengers and about 17 cars per trip across the Mississippi River between Reserve and Edgard, has been out of commission for more than two years for repairs, maintenance and a lack of qualified operators. Although the state has said that they intend to return the ferry to the water, it is still unclear how long it will continue to operate.

Roy Quezaire, legislative liaison for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said the department is still dealing with a shortage of personnel with the required Coast Guard licensing. To make matters worse, LADOTD has recommended the closure of the Reserve-Edgard ferry along with three others across the state that regularly drain funds from the state budget.

The recommendation was submitted in August to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Commission on Streamlining Government, which is looking to cut about $802 million from the state’s budget by the end of 2009.

The LADOTD report indicates the ferries are “one of the most costly transportation services that the department provides.” It says for some ferries to be self-sufficient, DOTD officials estimate fares would have to balloon from $1 per vehicle to more than $25.

The report recommends the state shut down the ferries in White Castle, Melville and Reserve, which together cost more than $3 million annually to operate and only generate about $30,500 in fares. An additional $2 million would be saved with the closure of the New Roads/St. Francisville ferry after a new bridge is installed over the Mississippi River in 2011.

Representatives for LADOTD said if all of the legal issues in the parish are settled the ferry service would be restored but for an unspecified amount of time.

Figures from the state showed that when the Reserve-Edgard ferry was operating, about 11,000 vehicles and 1,800 pedestrians were using it monthly. With the boat out of commission, motorists have had to drive an extra 12 miles out to the Veterans Memorial Bridge in St. James Parish, which connects to the town of Wallace on the west bank of St. John Parish. The trek adds more than 20 minutes to a ride that would only be 15 minutes on the ferry.

“It turns about a two-mile trip into nearly a 30 mile trip one way,” said Joel Hester, a Reserve resident who makes frequent trips to the West Bank. “The courthouse is almost right across the river from me, but I have to drive way out of the way to get there. I hope we can get the ferry back.”

A group of about 2,700 people have signed a petition from the West Bank Civic Association to bring the ferry back to the parish. The petition has been forwarded to DOTD officials, who have acknowledged receiving it.