The Block Island Times

Ferry cost comparisons: Block Island vs. others

By Judy Tierney | Jan 27, 2013
Photo by: Kari Curtis

When Interstate Navigation recently announced that it would seek to eliminate the Block Island commuter rate, it said it had looked at ferry rates around the country to compare round-trip ticket prices. The Block Island Times also did some comparisons on ferries to inhabited islands in Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Washington state and California. We looked at passenger ticket prices, island discounts and ferry schedules.

Block Island and Santa Catalina Island, Calif. were the only two islands served solely by private ferry companies. The others all had state-owned companies.

The Santa Catalina Express runs daily from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point, Calif., to the island of Santa Catalina, 22 miles out. The island’s town, Avalon, has a population of 3,756.

The Santa Catalina Express makes up to 30 round trips a day in under an hour. Adult tickets cost $36.25 each way, and children and seniors are discounted. According to the Catalina Chamber of Commerce, locals can obtain a discount, subsidized by Los Angeles County, on a commuter book containing 10 one-way tickets. Cost is $185 (or $18.50 each way, about half price).

Our close island neighbors in Massachusetts are served by The Massachusetts Steamship Authority, which owns ferries going to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The Authority describes itself as a “public instrumentality created by the Massachusetts Legislature to serve as the Lifeline to the Islands.”

The Authority is governed by a five-member board of directors, consisting of one resident each from Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Barnstable, New Bedford, and Falmouth, who are appointed by their local governments.

The authority states on its website, “Each of the island members’ has 35% of the members combined vote, and each of the mainland members has 10% of the members’ combined vote.”

The company has an annual budget of $80 million and since l962 has had only four annual deficits. On its website, the Authority says it has not had to assess taxpayers for extra money since 1963.

In the winter, from January through April, ferries run from Woods Hole, Mass., to Martha’s Vineyard on a daily basis with regular weekday times and slight changes for weekends. The Vineyard is 15.5 miles from Woods Hole and the ride takes 53 minutes. On weekdays, there are 13 boats a day to the island and 12 from the island. A one-way adult ticket is $8; $4.25 for a child. Passengers can buy a 10-ticket discounted book for adults at $65, for children at $37.50. A 46-ride book costs $138 a month. Except for the 46-ride book, ticket books are not limited to one person. They may be transferred, and multiple tickets can be used on the same voyage. A frequent traveler auto booklet is also available.

An interesting provision for islanders allows them to make up to five car reservations prior to opening of  reservations to the general public. They also have a preferred excursion program in which 15 cars per day are given standby status during reservation-only periods.

In winter, the Nantucket ferry travels back and forth to Hyannis on Cape Cod three round trips daily. The voyage takes 2 hours, 15 minutes and covers 24 miles of water. The price schedule is structured similarly to Martha’s Vineyard, with 10-trip discount books available. A regular winter one-way fare is $17.50 for an adult, and a ticketbook costs $140; children pay $9 and a ticket book costs $85. Commuter auto books are available as well.

The Authority runs a high speed ferry to the Vineyard in summer, and that has 10-ride discount books for adults, for children, for seniors, and the disabled, all at different prices.

While both Massachusetts islands have larger winter populations than Block Island, Ocracoke Island in North Carolina has just under 1,000 people year round and Vinalhaven, Maine, has just over 1,000 denizens; both similar to Block Island’s population. And both are served by public, state-owned ferries.

Vinalhaven is 15 miles offshore. The trip takes 1 hour, 15 minutes from Rockland Maine. From January through March 30, there are six round trip ferries daily except on Sundays when there are only four. The cost for a round trip ticket is $17.50 for adults, and $8.50 for children. A vehicle under 20 feet in length can make the round trip voyage for $49.50.

Ocracoke Island is a 40-minute voyage from Hatteras Island and the trip is free, even for cars. In winter, ferries run every hour from 5 a.m. to midnight. A similar ferry goes from Currituck to Knotts Island every few hours.

North Carolina began subsidizing private ferries in 1934, and in 1947 the state’s department of transportation launched the first route of their ferry division. They claim to be one of the largest ferry systems in North America, with 23 ferries. Washington state, with 28 ferries, has even more.

In Washington, large ferries run commuter routes from Seattle to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, and further out to sea to the San Juan Islands. A ticket to Bainbridge Island, 11.3 miles from the coast, costs $7.70 for foot passengers, and no fee is collected for them from Bainbridge to the mainland. Multi-ride discounts are available.

Most of these ferries use a frequent traveler approach to discount fares. Block Island and Santa Catalina are the only ones with island commuter discounts. That discount for Block Islanders keeps increasing.

However, the fuel surcharge keeps increasing, and seems to be weighted to winter. In May, 2012, a round trip ticket with a commuter card cost $11.90. This month, it cost $18.40. In January 2012, it was $17.95.

All of the ferry services surveyed except for Block Island run on a regular schedule with at least three or more trips a day, even in the winter. The Block Island ferry schedule is different almost every day, with three round trips at the same times on Monday and Thursday, but three different round trips Friday. There are no round trips available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and though Saturdays and Sundays have the same two boat schedules leaving Point Judith, the boats leaving Block Island are different in number and times.

Though only the private ferry companies we surveyed had a special fare for island residents, the discounted fare books cost less than Block Island’s 10 trip fares, which cost $137 for an adult and $78.75 for a child, and are slightly lower than local commuter card fares when divided by the distance to the mainland.

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