The Block Island Times
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Interstate Navigation’s Fall River run begins June 21

By Betty J. Cotter, Special to the Times | May 02, 2014

 

Interstate Navigation Co. is heading into the busy summer season, with plans for a new ferry run from Fall River, Mass., to Block Island and a new corporate headquarters.

On June 21, Interstate’s high-speed Islander will begin making daily runs from Fall River to Newport and Block Island as an expansion of a route it has operated for many years.

“It’s a brand new route, so there really is no way to know” how it will do, said Michael R. McElroy, the attorney for Interstate. “We’re hoping it will be a success.”

Last summer, Interstate carried just under 11,000 passengers between Newport and Block Island, with the bulk of those originating in Newport. “We had a very good run from Newport to Block Island,” McElroy said, “not as good as we hoped for Block Island to Newport. The Fall River part? We’ll just have to wait and see.”

The ferry will embark from Fall River at 8:30 a.m., leave Newport at 9:45 and then depart for Block Island at 11:15, with a second run leaving Newport at 12:30 p.m. and returning to Block Island at 6:05 p.m., arriving about 7:20 in Newport and ending the day roughly an hour later in Fall River.

In Fall River, the Islander will depart from State Pier, near Battleship Cove. In Newport, for the second year, the ferry will land at Perrotti Park, in the heart of downtown, instead of its previous, more remote location at Fort Adams.

Interstate Navigation has been working closely with officials in Fall River to make sure the new run will be a success. The company has joined the Fall River Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry, been in touch with officials at Battleship Cove and is working closely with the office of Mayor William Flanagan.

Megan Moran, sales manager for Interstate, said the ferry is marketing the route to both residents of southeastern Massachusetts and potential visitors to Cape Cod and other attractions.

Interstate officials participated in the AAA Marketplace Trade Show at Gillette Stadium in March, which attracted 15,000 people, Moran said. The ferry also plans to become involved with the Fall River Chamber, attending business after hours and other events to make connections and promote the service.

The ferry has targeted southeastern Massachusetts for digital advertising and will continue to promote all of its services through a mix of print, online, and radio advertising throughout New England, Moran said. Print includes maps, tour guides, newspapers and magazines. Interstate also attends trade and bus tour conventions and advertises with such online services as Trip Advisor.

When the Islander begins operation in June, the company expects to do print advertising in Fall River and Newport publications, she added.

The route will carry passengers down Mt. Hope Bay and Narragansett Bay, past the Mt. Hope and Newport bridges, by lighthouses and small islands. “You’ll get to see Rhode Island from the water point of view, which is a nice way to see Rhode Island,” Moran said.

The 11,000 passengers who traveled between Newport and Block Island last year represent a fraction compared to the approximately 200,000 passengers the Block Island Ferry carries each year from the port of Galilee to the island, most of whom travel in the summer. But Interstate, which runs both a high-speed and traditional ferry route from the port, sees little room for expansion there.

In fact, from May to November last year, passenger ridership out of Point Judith was down 3 percent from 2012, McElroy said. Although he could not say precisely why that was, he guessed that weather was a big factor.

Ticket prices did increase last year, from $18.30 to $22.60 for an adult round trip and from $10.50 to $16 for island commuters. Vehicle rates also were adjusted, decreasing from $49.80 to $38.95 for cars but increasing from $27 to $32.70 for commuter cars. Vehicle traffic was up by 9 percent, but McElroy said vehicle revenue remains a minor percentage of the ferry company’s profits.

“The driver of our passenger traffic is the weather,” he said. “Our passenger rates are so inconsequential … I think there are some people who are sensitive to the rates, but I think it’s a small minority.”

If the ferry company sees little room for significant expansion in Point Judith, it makes sense that it would look for alternative routes. The Fall River run was a natural, not only because of the proximity to Newport, but for two other reasons: the city itself was clamoring for the service, and, because it is a cross-state route, it doesn’t require a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers.

The ferry, however, continues to fight off competitors, in particular opposing Rhode Island Fast Ferry’s application with the Division of Carriers and Utilities of the state Public Utilities Commission to operate a high-speed route from Quonset Point in North Kingstown, R.I., to Block Island. The DPUC denied intervenor status to a company that operates a high-speed ferry out of New London, which was upheld in Superior Court, but has granted that status to Interstate and the Town of New Shoreham, both of which oppose the application.

The case is bringing up familiar arguments that a high-speed ferry would “skim the cream” of profits from the ferry’s passenger operation and transfer them to another company. The summertime passenger traffic traditionally has supported the ferry company’s winter service to the island, when it operates at a loss but provides vital freight service for diesel fuel, groceries and other necessities.

Interstate has fought this battle before with Rhode Island Fast Ferry owner Charles Donadio, who operated a fast ferry out of Galilee beginning in 1998 before selling it to Interstate three years later. His new business includes a high-speed ferry to Martha’s Vineyard from Quonset and tours of Narragansett Bay.

Meanwhile, Interstate Navigation has moved its corporate headquarters from New London, Conn., to Point Judith. For now, Interstate is looking to the summer, and is focused on making the Fall River route a success.

“The thing we’re most excited about is the Fall River run,” McElroy said.

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