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2016 Highlights of Ferry Operations in the United States

Read 2016 Highlights of Ferry Operations in the United States in PDF

By Janine McFadden, Andrew Barrows, and Clara Reschovsky

Based on those ferry operations that responded to the 2016 National Census of Ferry Operators (NCFO), a reported total of 118.9 million passengers and 25.0 million vehicles were transported by ferry in 2015. New York and Washington, the top 2 states for total passenger boardings, together reported transporting almost 70 million passengers in 2015 (43.6 and 26.1 million passengers, respectively). Washington and Texas, the top two states for total vehicle boardings, transported a reported 11.1 and 2.3 million vehicles, respectively, in 2015 (figure 1).

Ferries are used for a variety of reasons: to cross water in rural areas where there is not a bridge, to commute to work in coastal cities, to receive services in island regions, and for recreation or tourism in parks, amongst other reasons. In urban regions, namely New York City and San Francisco, there has been a recent resurgence in ferry use. Between 2017 and 2018, New York City plans to add 10 new ferry terminals and 19 new vessels that will facilitate 4.6 million annual trips across 6 routes and cover over 60 miles of waterway.1,2  From 2013 to 2015, the NCFO data showed that San Francisco’s ferry ridership increased 25 percent. This resurgence in the bay area has prompted the construction of new ferry vessels, terminals, and route segments to create additional transportation options in an area where roadways and other public transportation options are overcrowded, or where there previously was no other accessible public transportation.

This publication highlights data collected by the 2016 NCFO. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) conducted the NCFO from April through November 2016, collecting the operational characteristics of the 2015 calendar year ferry operations.

The 2016 NCFO collected responses from 163 ferry operators or 74.1 percent of all the known 220 eligible ferry operators. The data presented in this report represent only the responses provided by the ferry operators who responded to the NCFO. Unlike in previous years, the analysis provided in this report only includes reported numbers. Missing information or responses designated as business sensitive3 were not imputed or used in estimating totals.

In 2015 the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) (Public Law 114-94, section 1112)4 set aside $80 million for each fiscal year from 2016 to 2020 for the maintenance and improvement of the Nation’s public ferry system. These funds are authorized to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for their Ferry Boat Program (FBP) for the construction of ferry boat and ferry terminal facilities. The FBP funds are made available for eligible projects through the state or territory by use of the most recent NCFO data; the FBP funding formula is used to calculate the funding distributions.

U.S. Ferry Operations

A total of 163 (out of 220 eligible) ferry operators responded to the 2016 NCFO, including 157 operators across 37 states (of which 2 operated between U.S. and non-U.S. locations5) and 6 operators across 2 U.S. territories (figure 2). California, New York, and Washington had the largest numbers of total operators, each with 12.

Of the 163 responding ferry operators, 75 reported as a public operation (reporting on behalf of a federal, state, or local government agency) and 88 reported as a private operation. Of the 57 operators that did not respond to the 2016 NCFO, 3 were identified as public operators, while the remaining 54 were identified as private operators. 

Operator Funding

Of the 163 operators that responded to the 2016 NCFO, the majority (74.2 percent) reported that part of their revenue came from ticket sales, and 54.6 percent of all ferries reported those ticket sales to be between 75 and 100 percent of their total revenue (figure 3). The vast majority of responding operators (88.3 percent) reported having no public contract revenue. A large majority of responding operators also reported no federal funding revenue (84.0 percent). A relatively small number of operators (22.7 percent) received state funding, and of those that did, the majority reported it to be between 75 and 100 percent of their total revenue. Local funding revenue was also a revenue source for a relatively small number of the responding operators (14.7 percent).

U.S. Ferry Vessels

A total of 652 vessels were reported by those operators responding to the 2016 NCFO. Of these vessels, 609 (93.3 percent) were reported to be in-service in 2015. New York and California had the largest reported fleets in 2015 with 56 and 55 vessels, respectively (figure 4).

Vessel Ownership and Operation

Of the 652 reported vessels, 46.8 percent were privately owned and operated, while 37.3 percent were publicly owned and operated (figure 5). Some of the vessels were reported as either publicly or privately owned, but did not report how they were operated (1.7 and 6.3 percent, respectively). A relatively small number were publicly owned and privately operated (6.1 percent), while even fewer were privately owned and publicly operated (0.9 percent).

Vessel Characteristics

Of the 652 reported vessels, nearly all carried passengers (93.3 percent), while under half (42.8 percent) carried vehicles, and less than a quarter carried freight (19.9) (figure 6). 

In addition, of the reported vessels, 313 were passenger-only vessels, 7 were vehicle-only vessels and 5 were freight-only vessels (figure 7). While 170 (26.1%) carried both passengers and vehicles, 23 (3.5%) carried both passengers and freight, and 102 (15.6%) carried passengers, vehicles and freight. There were no reported vessels that carried only vehicles and freight.

The average passenger capacity of the reported passenger-carrying vessels was 323 passengers, with a median passenger capacity of 149 and a maximum capacity of 5,200 (figure 8). The average vehicle capacity of the reported vehicle-carrying vessels was 23, with a median vehicle capacity of 9 and a maximum capacity of 202. The average operating speed of the reported vessels was 14 knots, with a median speed of 12 knots and a maximum of 43. The average age of the reported vessels was 27 years, the median age was 25 years, and the oldest vessel was 102.

Of the 652 reported vessels, additional vessel characteristics were identified using data collected by the U.S. Coast Guard.6 Vessel propulsion data was identified using this source for 596 of the reported vessels in 2015. Of these vessels, almost all were self-propelled (95.1 percent), while 29 vessels (4.9 percent) used some other form of propulsion (figure 9).

The majority of vessels were fueled by diesel engines (91.7 percent), followed by gasoline engines (3.4 percent) (figure 10). In addition, 4 reported vessels were powered by electricity and 27 by some other fuel source, of which the majority were barges powered by an adjoining tug boat. Non-powered barge and powered tug boat combinations are commonly used in river crossing operations, mainly to move one vehicle and passenger across at a time.

U.S. Ferry Terminals

Operators that participated in the 2016 NCFO reported a combined total of 560 terminals in calendar year 2015 (figure 11). The regions with the highest density of reported terminals were in the northeast and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, as well as on the west coast and in Alaska. New York had the highest number of reported terminals in 2015 (60), while California (47), Alaska (41), Washington (40), Maine (32) and Michigan (31) also had a relatively high numbers of reported terminals.

Terminal Access

Of those terminals that reported terminal intermodal connectors (556), over two-thirds had parking onsite or nearby (69.4 percent), whereas nearly one-third (29.5 percent) had local bus service (figure 12). Additionally, 12.8 percent of terminals reported having intercity bus service, while a smaller percentage had rail service nearby (local rail = 7.2 percent, intercity rail = 4.9 percent).

Terminal Ownership and Operation

Out of the 560 reported terminals, over half were reported to be publicly owned and operated (57.7 percent), while 17.7 percent were privately owned and operated, and 11.3 percent were publicly owned and privately operated (figure 13).

U.S. Ferry Route Segments

Route segments are defined as the direct travel between two terminals with no intermediate stops, where the associated state of the route segment is the state of the origin terminal. The highest number of reported route segments were concentrated in the northeast, the west coast, and in Alaska (figure 14). The top five states with the largest number of reported terminals accounted for half of the total reported segments. Those top five states are: Alaska (13.8 percent), California (11.1 percent), New York (10.8 percent), Washington (8.9 percent), and Michigan segments (6.0 percent).

The 880 total reported route segments served a combined total of 20,042.4 nautical miles,7 with an average distance of 11.9 nautical miles per route segment (table 11). By far the highest total number of reported state route miles was in Alaska, where 12,492.5 nautical miles were served in calendar year 2015, totaling over 62.3 percent of the reported U.S. route miles. Ferry routes in the United States ranged from 0.1 miles to 595.0 miles, while the majority of routes were less than 1 mile (26.02%) (figure 15). These ferry routes ranged from riverbank crossings to the longest reported route segment, which extends from Ketchikan, AK, to Bellingham, WA.

The majority of all reported route segments were intrastate (87.7 percent), meaning that the segment did not cross state lines. The largest percentage of interstate segments, that is, segments that crossed state lines, were reported in the northeast (figure 16). Of those northeastern states, New York and New Jersey had a relatively large proportion of these interstate segments, 25 and 19, respectively. There were also 10 international segments, that is, segments that either started or ended at a terminal in a non-U.S. state or territory.

Over 10 percent of the reported U.S. ferry system segments in 2015 were identified as being operated for the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). Of the 92 reported NPS ferry segments, the highest numbers were reported in Michigan (32), California (18), and New York (9) (figure 17).


The 2016 NCFO was a census of all known ferry boat operations within the United States and its territories, encompassing the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition to the ferry operations providing domestic service within the United States and its territories, operations providing international services to or from at least one U.S. terminal were also included. Ferry operations included within the scope of the NCFO were those providing itinerant, fixed route, and common carrier passenger and/or vehicle ferry service. Railroad car float operations were also included within the scope of the NCFO.

Not included within the scope of the ferry census were operations that were exclusively nonitinerant, such as excursion services (e.g. whale watches, casino boats, day cruises, dinner cruises, etc.). Also not included are passenger-only water taxi services not operating on a fixed route and LoLo (Lift-on/Lift-off) freight/auto carrier series. Efforts to enumerate ferry operations within the United States for the 2016 NCFO resulted in a frame of 259 active ferry operations for calendar year 2015.

All 259 known ferry operations were encouraged to participate in the 2016 NCFO by an advance letter sent out in March 2016. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics then sent the questionnaire in April 2016 to each operator. Non-respondents were then contacted by phone from May through July 2016 to ensure that they received their questionnaire and to determine if they needed any assistance in completing the form. Non-respondents were also sent two emails over this same time-period. Data collection was completed in November 2016.

Additional clarification of data entries and data cleaning was conducted based on information collected from ferry operator websites and from the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) vessel database including vessel, terminal, segment, and other operational information. Furthermore, the USCG vessel database was used to collect additional vessel characteristics on the reported vessels. Of the 259 ferry operators who were sent a questionnaire, 32 were determined to be out of scope (i.e., they were either determined to be ineligible or they were no longer in operation), while 7 other operations were determined to already have had their data included in their state transportation agency’s report or in their parent company’s report (e.g., some ferry companies operate more than one ferry service and report all their operations on a single NCFO form). To avoid double counting, those 7 operations were removed from the frame of individual operations. A total of 163 ferry operators from the remaining list of 220 completed the NCFO questionnaire for a response rate of 74.1 percent.

There were 18 (11.0%) operators that either did not provide passenger and/or vehicle boarding data or asked that the data they provided not be made public. Unlike in past years, missing passenger and vehicle boarding estimates were not imputed in the 2016 NCFO due to high variability in the estimates. Due to eligible operators who did not respond, as well as those choosing not to provide or make information public for select data items, the numbers in this report likely underestimate the true values. These underestimates included the counts of vessels, terminals, segments, and route miles—and especially—total passenger and vehicle boardings in 2015.

Finally, it is not encouraged to compare NCFO statistics from census-to-census year due to differences in the responding population as well as differences in imputing missing data.


3 Respondents in the 2016 NCFO could designate any reported information as business sensitive. Of the total respondents 18 (11.0%) indicated one or more of their responses as business-sensitive.


5 Non-U.S. ferry operations that served U.S. ferry terminals are included in the NCFO.  

6 United States Coast Guard Merchant Vessels of the United States (Feb. 8, 2017).  

7 1 nautical mile = 1.15078 highway miles.


Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2017