New Orleans RTA Selects New Ferry Operator

Residents of New Orleans—in particular the city’s Algiers neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River—finally have regular ferry service once again between Algiers Point and the foot of Canal Street and Chalmette, following a December 9 vote by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) board of commissioners to name a new ferry operator.

In a special board meeting, commissioners voted to award Labmar Ferry Services LLC a contract for ferry maintenance and operations, including a provision for charter services. The contract is not to exceed $6.3 million annually.

“I want to commend the RTA leadership for acting swiftly to select Labmar Ferry Services LLC as the contractor to handle ferry service and operations,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement. “We understand that our residents deserve high-quality and efficient day-to-day operations services for the public ferries that cross the Mississippi River and provide vital connections between New Orleans, Algiers and Chalmette.”

RTA leadership also spoke out in praise of the important step toward returning regular ferry service, which had been suspended in New Orleans for more than two months.

“Today marks a new beginning on the path to advancing the mission of the RTA,” said Flozell Daniels Jr., chairman of the RTA board of commissioners. “We will work closely and diligently with our new partners to ensure that world-class ferry service is not only an expectation but an imperative.”

“Today is an important milestone in the long journey to addressing ongoing issues with RTA ferry service,” said Alex Z. Wiggins, CEO of the RTA. “As an Algiers native, I know firsthand the importance of a reliable and convenient ferry service for families and I am pleased to announce the award of the ferry operations and maintenance contract, which allows Labmar to immediately take over ferry operations and enter negotiations for charter service.”

Labmar Ferry Services is a subsidiary of Laborde Marine, a local South Louisiana company that operates a fleet of crew boats and offshore support vessels serving the oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico. The Laborde name is one of the most familiar names in South Louisiana’s maritime history, with the family’s patriarch Alden “Doc” Laborde designing and building both the first mobile drilling rigs and the modern offshore supply vessel. Doc Laborde founded Tidewater Marine, now Tidewater Inc. Laborde Marine’s owners, brothers John Peter (JP) Laborde and Cliff Laborde, are nephews of the late Doc Laborde and both worked previously at Tidewater.

Labmar Ferry Services replaces Transdev, which RTA removed as ferry operator in September. That moved followed the failure of Transdev to secure Coast Guard approval to operate a pair of $5 million catamarans built for RTA at shipbuilder Metal Shark’s Franklin, La., shipyard. Metal Shark delivered RTA 1 in July 2018, with RTA 2 following in October 2018, though the vessels have never gone into service. What’s more, since Transdev had been removed as ferry operator, the ferry Col. Frank X. Armiger, which usually operates between Algiers Point and Canal Street, was out of operation due to mechanical issues for more than 2-1/2 months. Maintenance issues have hounded the Armiger for years, and the outage both inhibits tourist travel to historic Algiers Point and greatly complicates west bank residents’ commute to downtown New Orleans on the east bank of the river.

In a statement released December 4, city officials said they’d planned to return the Armiger to service in late November, but the plan “was scrapped after a new failure arose during river tests on Wednesday.”

“This continues to happen; each time the Armiger comes out of maintenance for one issue,” the city said, “another one is discovered.”

Now with Labmar at the helm, the company has stationed the vessel Margaret Lab at the Canal Street ferry terminal, officially restarting ferry service between Algiers and Canal Street on December 15. Beginning the following morning at 6 a.m., the Margaret Lab is operating on a normal ferry schedule.

“Now we are focused on getting our new boats officially in the water, and we continue to do our due diligence to ensure they are safe and ready to go,” Cantrell said after the Margaret Lab went into service. “I want to commend the RTA for their leadership in securing the ferry charter service as an interim step, and their dedication to this issue. The city stands ready to support RTA with any emergency funding needed to ensure smooth and efficient operations as we all work to rectify the situation.”