Order in the port: Block Island Ferry fee could soon go up to cover security fund

The Block Island Ferry terminal at Galilee can be a hectic place on a hot summer evening as sea-legged passengers stagger off the boat after a weekend of sun, looking for their cars or a dockside bar.

The job of maintaining order in the port falls to the Town of Narragansett and the costs of doing so are going up even as the number of passengers disembarking has fallen from pre-pandemic years.

As a result, the dedicated town fund that pays for landside ferry security has run dry.

"We are looking at a $14,000 deficit in the fund balance this fiscal year," Narragansett Town Manager James Tierney told a Senate committee last week about the port security account funded by the landing fees.

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The Block Island ferry pulls into Galilee.
The Block Island ferry pulls into Galilee.

So the town has asked state lawmakers for permission to increase the landing fee on every Galilee-bound ferry ticket that funds the security account.

The fee hike won't be large, a barely noticeable 15 cents per passenger, to bring the landing fee to 50 cents, matching the landing fee that the Town of New Shoreham charges for passengers arriving on the island.

"We have a great deal of issues down there," Tierney told the senators. "We have stolen vehicles. We've had fights. You can imagine families coming back from Block Island ... people spending all day down there trying to get out of Galilee. We have traffic issues and freight issues coming off the boat."

Fee hike will cover Galilee security fund

The Narragansett security fund pays to "protect the health, safety, and welfare of all passengers, including, but not limited to, emergency medical services [and] acquisition of both personal and real property to provide support to the ferry passengers," according to the state law authorizing it.

In practical terms, that means paying for police security details, recycling, trash removal and part-time labor to beautify the area around the docks.

Tierney said the Galilee police detail rate is one of the lowest around and they are having trouble filling shifts consistently.

The landing fee is charged to each passenger 13 years and older on both the high-speed ferries landing at Galilee and traditional year-round ferry.

In 2018, 375,000 passengers got off the ferry in Galilee. That dropped to 328,000 in fiscal 2020 and 274,000 last year, Tierney said.

Narragansett signed an agreement with ferry operator Interstate Navigation in 2002 that has the ferry collect the landing fee and pass it along to the town annually, minus an administrative fee of up to 15%.

"Really? That's crazy," an unidentified senator on the Senate Housing and Municipal Government Committee said about Interstate taking a cut, according to a Senate audio recording of the hearing.

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The Block Island Ferry returns to mainland Rhode Island.
The Block Island Ferry returns to mainland Rhode Island.

Landing fee negotiations

The original version of legislation to increase the landing fee called for a 40-cent per passenger increase, to 75 cents.

But after negotiations with Interstate the town agreed to match the New Shoreham fee at 50 cents per passenger, Tierney said.

The Senate Municipal Government Committee passed an amended 50-cent version Tuesday and it is slated for the full Senate next week.

The House version is scheduled for a vote in the House Municipal Government Committee Thursday.

Tierney told the committee the fee increase should raise an additional $50,000 per year.

If it goes through, the town could look at raising the police detail rate, he said.

Narragansett received 140 calls for police of emergency services near the Galilee ferry terminal in the year that ended June 30, 2021, and has received 71 calls since then.

Interstate Navigation has no comment on the fee increase, attorney Michael McElroy wrote in an email.

panderson@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7384

On Twitter: @PatrickAnderso_

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This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Block Island Ferry fee could go up to cover Galilee security fund