Mississippi County ferry raises fares

Friday, May 2, 2008

CHARLESTON, Mo. — Fares on the Dorena-Hickman Ferry are being raised. When the ferry will be back in operation is still unknown.

Ferry officials met with Mississippi County commissioners during the regular County Commission meeting Thursday to get approval for the new fare schedule and provide an update on the ferry's status.

Commissioner Homer Oliver opened by asking the question many area residents are asking: "When is the ferry going to operate?"

The short answer is, "As soon as we get the money," said Stephen "Captain Steve" P.J. Stanionis.

Ferry officials advised they are still in negotiations with federal officials and state officials from Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee to find a long-term solution to the ferry's lack of funding. "Every effort is being made to put the ferry back into service," Stanionis said.

Among these efforts is raising revenue generated by the ferry.

Stanionis described the fuel surcharge they requested and that was approved by the County Commission on March 20 as a "baby step" toward raising revenue to meet rising costs. Due to high waters, however, "we actually never started the program," Stanionis said. "What we really need to do is raise the fares."

In drafting the proposed fare increase, ferry officials had several goals, according to Stanionis. The first was to stay under $15.

Officials also wanted to maintain a fare structure that charges more for vehicles that are wider or longer than a regular passenger vehicle. "What we sell is space on the barge," Stanionis said — hence the longer or wider a vehicle is, the more it should cost.

The third goal was to keep the half-price return fare in place for those who purchase round-trip tickets "because that is important to ridership," he said.

Under the new fare schedule, basic fare for single-width vehicles up to 30 feet long is $14. The fare for single-width vehicles 31-55 feet is $28 and vehicles 56-75 feet long cost $42. Vehicles 8-12 feet wide have their length charge multiplied by 1.5; over 12 feet wide are multiplied by 2.

Fares for motorcycles, ATVs and horse-drawn wagons remain unchanged at $5 as do the fares for bicycles and horses at $2 and $1 for pedestrians.

Return trips for round-trip tickets are still half price. There are also advance purchase opportunities in place.

Ferry officials also hope to see increased subsidies from Missouri and Kentucky and to begin receiving financial support from Tennessee.

Stanionis said Swayne Byrd, a Mississippi County Port Authority Board member, has made "a significant effort to raise funds" for both operation costs for the rest of this fiscal year and for solvency in future fiscal years. The fiscal year runs until the end of June.

"Tennessee needs to carry their fair share of this burden," Byrd said. "It's time for them to do something."

According to ferry officials, 52 percent of those using the ferry are heading to Tennessee.

Byrd said as an entertainment park is being planned in Union City, Tenn., that city's industrial development and tourism boards and local media are recognizing the importance of the Dorena-Hickman ferry.

There are also other reasons the ferry is important on a regional level such as civil defense, according to Byrd. The Coast Guard can — and has — called on assistance from the ferry, he said.

Ferry officials also noted semitruck traffic across the ferry has increased over the years from one or two per week to 4-6 per day, many of which include oversize loads such as swimming pools and farm equipment.

"We may be the salvation for a lot of independent truckers," Byrd said. "We are the economic route for independent truckers."

Leon Steinbrueck, project manager for Dorena-Hickman Ferry, said last year's increase of $5,000 in subsidies was the first subsidy funding increase since the ferry was re-established in 1994.

The ferry operation has always struggled to meet regular operating expenses, Stanionis said, but this year was particularly difficult.

Fuel costs have increased 42 percent over the last 18 months, Steinbrueck said. Additionally, being out of operation due to high water has resulted in the loss of about $20,000 in fare revenue, Stanionis estimated.

Stanionis said they have also discovered a critical problem with the starboard engine while the ferry has been out of operation: cracks in every cylinder.

The cost to rebuild the engine is estimated at $25,000 without a warranty. To rebuild it with a warranty the cost would be about $35,000.

Rebuilding both engines with a warranty "would be the best way to go," Stanionis said.

Commissioners approved the fare increase. Oliver said this area is very fortunate to have a ferry and to have a dedicated operator such as Stanionis.

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