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2014 Highlights of Ferry Operations in the United States

by Kenneth Steve, Julie Parker, and Clara Reschovsky

Based on information provided by operators who responded to the 2014 National Census of Ferry Operators (NCFO), the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) conservatively estimates that ferries in the U.S. carried just over 115 million passengers and over 30 million vehicles1 in 2013.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) (Public Law 114-94, section 1112) 2 set aside $80 million for each fiscal year from 2016 to 2020 for the maintenance and improvement of the Nation’s ferry system.   It also required the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to use BTS’ NCFO data as input for the formula for allocating Federal ferry funds.  This report highlights the findings of the 2014 NCFO, which collected the operational characteristics of ferry operations in calendar year 2013.  Data collection for the 2016 NCFO began in April.

Ferry Passenger and Vehicle Traffic Volume

Given the information provided by ferry operators participating in the 2014 NCFO and additional imputations, it is estimated that U.S. ferries carried over 115 million passengers and just over 30 million vehicles in calendar year 2013 (table 1).  The West region3 had the highest passenger and vehicle traffic volumes (45.8 million and 14.9 million, respectively).  The West was followed by the Northeast in passenger boardings (30.9 million), and the South in vehicle boardings (9.1 million).  In the South there were 26.4 million passenger boardings followed by the Midwest with approximately 10.4 million passenger boardings. 

Table 1: Passenger and Vehicle Boarding Estimates by Census Region (2013)

Census RegionPassengersStd Error aVehiclesStd Error a
Northeast30,851,596385,1553,455,76084,796
Midwest10,406,371280,2672,377,01060,384
South26,441,653181,2009,121,24017,326
West45,846,310436,57514,864,231135,173
U.S. territory b582,99163,743206,62629,219
Non-U.S. location965,78391,895264,24535,855
Total115,094,704513,10430,289,112236,622

a Std Error: The standard error is the standard deviation of the distribution of estimates from the multiple imputations. It is a measurement of the error associated with each estimate due to imputation.

b U.S. territories include Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

U.S. Ferry Operations
There were a total of 128 ferry operators4 who responded to the NCFO for calendar year 2013: 124 across 38 states, 2 in U.S. territories, and 2 between U.S. and non-U.S. locations.5  A breakdown of these operations by U.S. census regions can be seen in table 2.

Table 2: Operators by Census Region a (2013)

Census regionOperatorsPercent
Northeast3527.3
Midwest2217.2
South3628.1
West3124.2
U.S. territory21.6
Non-U.S. location21.6
Total128100.0

a A Map of U.S. Census Regions can be seen in Appendix B.

Operators indicated that just over half of their route fares were regulated by a public agency (53.7 percent – Appendix C).  The majority of reporting operators’ revenue came from ticket sales, as seen in table 3.  Nearly two-thirds of operators reported that 75 percent or more of their revenue resulted from ticket sales.   Ten operators (8.7 percent) reported that State Grant Funding provided 75 percent or more of their revenue.   This contrasts with Public Funding (e.g., contracts held with public entities such as states or localities) and Private Funding sources that provided the vast majority of operators with less than 25 percent of their revenue (97.4 and 96.6 percent, respectively).

Table 3: Percent of Revenue from Funding Source a (2013)

Source
Percent of Revenue
Ticket SalesPublicPrivateState
CountPercentCountPercentCountPercentCountPercent
Less than 25 percent2521.211197.411396.69986.1
25 to 50 percent97.610.910.910.9
50 to 75 percent75.900.010.954.3
75 percent or more7765.321.821.7108.7
Total118100.0114100.0117100.0115100.0

a Percentages are based on those ferry operators responding to the 2014 NCFO. A total of 119 ferry operators provided information on revenue sources although not all responded to each funding source item.

Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

The U.S. Ferry Fleet
Ferry operators who responded to the 2014 NCFO reported a ferry fleet of 499 vessels, 476 of which were in active service in calendar year 2013.  California had the largest fleet (53 vessels), followed by Massachusetts (49), Washington State (46), New York (45), New Jersey (39), and North Carolina (30) – see Appendix D.  The largest concentration of ferry vessels was reported in the Northeast, followed by the West and South regions as seen in table 4.

Table 4: Vessels by Census Region (2013)

Census RegionVesselsIn Service
CountPercentCountPercent
Northeast18336.718138.0
Midwest6513.06313.2
South12224.410822.7
West12324.612025.2
U.S. territory30.620.4
Non-U.S. location30.620.4
Total499100.0476100.0

Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

Of these vessels, 42.8 percent were both privately owned and operated, while 39.4 percent were publicly both publicly owned and operated (table 5). Some of the vessels were reported to be publicly or privately owned but it was unknown how they were operated (2.0 percent and 7.0 percent respectively).  A relatively small number were publicly owned and privately operated (4.4 percent), while fewer were privately owned and publicly operated (1.4 percent).

Table 5: Vessel Ownership by Operation (2013)

OwnershipOperation
PublicPrivateBothUnknown 
CountPercentCountPercentCountPercentCountPercentTotal
Public19639.4224.41-0.2102.0229
Private71.421342.800.0357.0255
Both00.000.01-0.200.01
Unknown00.000.000.0132.613
Total20340.823547.22-0.45811.6498

Nearly all of the vessels in the ferry fleet carry passengers (95.0 percent), while just under half (47.1 percent) carry vehicles, and less than a quarter carry freight (22.2 percent – Appendix C).  The average passenger capacity of the passenger carrying fleet was 291 with a median capacity of 149 and maximum of 5,200 people (table 6).  The average vehicle capacity of the vehicle carrying fleet was 51 with a median capacity of 30 and a maximum of 395 vehicles.  The average operating speed of the fleet was 15 knots and the average age of the fleet was 28 years, the oldest vessel being 101 years old.

Table 6: Vessel Characteristics (2013)

Characteristic (vessels)Mean aMedian aMinimum cMaximum
Passenger capacity (432) b29114925,200
Vehicle capacity (229) b51300395
Typical speed (440)1512172
Vessel age (487)28251101

a The mean is simply the average value. The Median represents the middle most value when all numbers are listed in order. The median is a more accurate measure of the central tendency when a distribution of numbers is highly skewed.

b Does not include vessels that do not carry passengers or vehicles. Car ferries often do not track or report passenger boarding counts.

c The minimum value of zero for vehicle capacity is due to the reporting a Tug/Barge combination or reporting error.

Almost all of the vessels in the fleet for which information was reported (463) were self-propelled (94.6 percent) with 25 vessels (5.4 percent) using some other form of propulsion (Appendix C).  Of those vessels that were self-propelled, the majority were propelled by diesel engines (94.4 percent), followed by gasoline engines (3.2 percent).  The fleet also contained 3 vessels powered by electricity and 8 by some other unspecified fuel source.

The U. S. Ferry System

The U.S. Ferry system consists of all of the ferry terminals and route segment being serviced in a given census year.  Operators participating in the 2014 NCFO reported that there were 441 terminals in the U.S. ferry system in calendar year 2013.  These terminals were spread fairly evenly across the regions with 29.3 percent of terminals in the West and 29.0 percent in the Northeast, followed by the South (26.1 percent) and the Midwest (13.2 percent) as is shown in table 7.  The top five states with regard to the number of ferry terminals were New York (51), California (42), Washington (39), and Alaska (37)  (Appendix D).  Of those terminals for which data was provided (441 – Appendix C), nearly two-thirds had parking on site or nearby (65.8 percent), whereas nearly one-third (30.8 percent) had local bus service.  Additionally, only 10.9 percent had intercity bus service near the terminal, while a smaller percentage had rail service nearby (local rail = 7.9 percent; intercity rail = 4.5 percent). 

Table 7: Terminals by Census Region (2013)

Census regionTerminalsPercent
Northeast12829.0
Midwest5813.2
South11526.1
West12929.3
U.S. territory51.1
Non-U.S. location61.4
Total441100.0

Operators only indicated whether 318 of these terminals were publically or privately owned or operated.  Of these, the majority were reported to be publicly owned and operated (61.6 percent – table 8), while an additional 23.0 percent were privately owned and operated, and 13.8 percent were publicly owned and privately operated.

Table 8: Terminal Ownership by Operation (2013)

OwnershipOperation
PublicPrivateBothUnknownTotal
CountPercentCountPercentCountPercentCountPercent
Public19661.64413.800.000.0240
Private51.67323.000.000.078
Both00.000.000.000.00
Unknown00.000.000.000.00
Total20163.211736.800.000.0318

These 441 terminals were linked in various combinations to form a total of 741 route segments,6 where route segments are defined as the direct travel between two terminals with no intermediate stops.  The majority of these route segments (42.2 percent) were in the West, followed by the Northeast (25.9 percent), and then the South (16.5 percent) and the Midwest (13.4 percent), as seen in table 9.  The top five states with regard to the number of route segments were: Alaska (126), California (96), New York (84), Washington (79), and Michigan (55) (Appendix D).

Table 9: Route Segments by Census Region (2013)

Census regionSegmentsPercent
Northeast19225.9
Midwest9913.4
South12316.5
West31242.2
U.S. territory60.8
Non-U.S. location91.2
Total741100.0

These 741 route segments served a combined total of 21,301 nautical miles7 with an average distance of almost 31 nautical miles per route segment.  By far the greatest number of route miles served was in the West region (17,042 nautical miles), with the longest of these route segments being 595 miles long.  The next greatest number of route miles served was in the Northeast (1,997 nautical miles), followed by the Midwest and the South (1,047 and 370 nautical miles, respectively) as seen in table 10. 

Table 10: Route Miles by Census Region (2013)

Census regionMeanMedianMinimumMaximumTotal
Northeast10.65.30.1180.01996.9
Midwest14.05.00.072.01047.2
South3.60.80.126.4370.2
West54.620.00.1595.017042.2
U.S. territory11.012.03.018.066.0
Non-U.S. Location97.327.41.0518.0778.6
Total30.77.20.0595.021301.0

The majority of all route segments, regardless of region, were intrastate (88.9 percent) meaning that both terminals were located in the same state.  A greater percentage of interstate segments were in the Northeast (25.5 percent) than in any other regions as seen in table 11.  There were 13 international segments between U.S. territories or non-U.S. ports to U.S. ports.  Less than 5 percent (4.7 percent) of route segments served a National Park.

Table 11: Segment Type and National Park Service by Census Region (2013)

Census RegionIntrastateInterstate aInternationalNational Park
CountPercentCountPercentCountPercentCountPercent
Northeast14274.04925.510.5126.3
Midwest9090.977.122.01010.1
South11593.586.500.064.9
West30597.831.041.372.2
U.S. territory466.700.0233.300.0
Non-U.S. location333.3222.2444.400.0
Total65988.9699.3131.8354.7

a Interstate Segments are assigned to the State of departure.

Methodology

The 2014 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 ferry operations providing domestic service within the United States and its territories, operations providing 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 are 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.); passenger-only water taxi services not operating on a fixed route, LoLo (Lift-on/Lift-off) freight/auto carrier services; and/or long-distance, passenger-only cruise ship services. Efforts to enumerate ferry operations within the United States for the 2014 census resulted in a frame of 253 active ferry operations for the calendar year 2013.

All known ferry operations were encouraged to participate in the NCFO via an advance letter sent out in May 2014. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics then sent an initial mailing in June 2014 to each operator inviting them to take part in the NCFO. Nonrespondents were then contacted by phone from June through October 2014 to ensure that they received their questionnaire and to determine if they needed any assistance in completing the form.

Additional clarification of data entries and data cleaning was conducted based on information gathered from the ferry operator websites (e.g., vessels, terminals, etc.), as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Coast Guard vessel databases.  Of the 253 ferry operators who were sent a census questionnaire, 36 were determined to be out of scope (i.e., they either did not qualify or they were no longer in operation), and two more were determined to be reported on by a state transportation agency.  A total of 128 ferry operators from the remaining list of 215 providing service in 2013 returned the NCFO questionnaire for a response rate of 59.5 percent.  (Response rates were calculated using a simple ratio of the number of completed questionnaires over the number of possible active operators).

A number of operators either: 1) did not provide passenger and/or vehicle boarding data, or 2) asked that the data they did provide not be made public.  Passenger and vehicle boarding estimates were developed using the publicly available NCFO data whereby missing values were estimated using a multiple imputation process.  The imputation model for these estimates utilized the characteristics of the vessel most commonly used to service a given route segment to predict the missing values. The estimates in the tables represent the average of these imputed totals across all sets of imputations. The corresponding standard errors represent the statistical level of uncertainty associated with each statistic.  Even with these imputations, it is expected that the passenger counts may be slightly under estimated due to car ferries that simply count vehicle boardings and not the vehicle’s occupants.  There were a number of car ferries that did not report any passenger boardings even though there had to be at least one driver onboard.  

Finally, great caution should be taken when comparing NCFO statistics from census-to-census year due to differences in reporting and methodology.  Not all ferry operators report in the census during each enumeration, and therefore differences in estimates between years could be attributable to the differences in responding operators.  In addition, data collection methods often fluctuate from census to census due to new information needs and updated data collection requirements.  Thus census-to-census year comparisons are not encouraged.

1 Passenger and vehicle estimates were based on data provided by operators that participated in the 2014 NCFO and multiple imputations for missing data.  See state-by-state estimates in Appendix A. See explanation of estimates in methodology.  Due to nonresponse from some ferry operators, these estimates are likely to underestimate the actual number of passenger and vehicle boardings that occurred in 2013.

2 https://www.congress.gov/114/bills/hr22/BILLS-114hr22enr.pdf (link is external)

3 A map of the U.S. Census regions by state can be seen in Appendix B.

4 The total number of operators in 2013 is actually larger than depicted in this report.  This number represents those who responded to the census.  

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

6 This count of route segments may be low due to under-reporting.  Under-reporting may have occurred in some cases where ferry operators who serviced a complex array of route segments, provided a preprinted schedule in lieu of completing the census form.

7 1 nautical mile = 1.15078 statute miles (i.e., highway miles).

Appendix A – Passengers, Vehicles and Route Miles by State (2013)

StatePassengers aVehicles aRoute miles a
MeanStandard ErrorMeanStandard ErrorNautical
AL278,6040101,430011.6
AK8,474,174345,9963,342,917131,16613385.5
AR51,456030,80801.5
CA10,125,777134,579338,65601169.7
CT724,801088,263076.0
DE680,58546,598186,750014.2
FL653,2260218,37606.1
GA1,724,62791,7880012.3
HI194,07100032.0
IA17,02206,33501.0
IL3,091,41751,616740,462011.5
KY237,3690148,07001.4
LA8,090,99804,203,35201.4
MA4,864,642121,681681,63917,012433.0
MD321,54740,890116,06523,5690.2
MI5,131,156224,722937,17435,170796.8
MN134,69933,5050020.0
MO171,99036,13859,32901.3
MT2,82301,61000.2
NC4,148,40394,273850,3210165.2
NH144,81126,35600-
NJ4,399,59718,652132,2210371.9
NY13,382,134185,2331,495,67248,645612.0
OH450,599011,1340118.1
OK8,74100013.0
OR1,047,17978,278446,19023,3722.5
PA1,771,035207,175456,27361,2114.8
RI804,11487,5700056.6
SC922,12639,98790040.2
TN77,380058,40001.7
TX6,122,31202,137,30607.3
UT6,97004,37009.9
VT1,009,633113,525343,37055,46012.1
WA25,995,317100,12210,730,48723,8432442.6
WI1,409,48894,524622,57664,98198.4
WV27,568011,02700.1
Other b6,847,571-1,317,568-524.4
U.S. territory582,99163,743206,62629,21966.0
Non-U.S. location965,78391,895264,24535,855778.6
Total115,094,704513,10430,289,112236,62221301.0

a Estimates were developed from multiple imputations computed at the operator segment level. The mean and standard error of these estimates were then computed for the total boardings and then aggregated by state. Missing values denoted by (-).

b Not all states could be shown individually due to potential disclosure issues for passenger and vehicle data designated as business confidential. Thus, other refers to collapsed states (Maine and Virginia) that had to be combined for data protection purposes.

Appendix B – State Groupings by Census Region *

If you are a user with a disability and cannot view this image, please call 800-853-1351 for further assistance.

* Source: http://www2.census.gov/geo/pdfs/maps-data/maps/reference/us_regdiv.pdf (link is external).

Appendix C – Route, Fleet and Terminal Characteristics (2013)

Route (sample size)CountPercent
Fares Regulated (758)40753.7


Fleet

Parameter (sample size)CountPercent
Carry passengers (499)47495.0
Carry vehicles (499)23547.1
Carry freight (499)11122.2
Self-propelled (463)43894.6
Other propulsion (463)255.4
Diesel (467)44194.4
Gas (467)153.2
CNG (467)00.0
Electric (467)30.6
Other (467)81.7


Terminal

Parameter (sample size)CountPercent
Parking (441)29065.8
Local bus (441)13630.8
Intercity bus (441)4810.9
Local rail (441)357.9
Intercity rail (441)204.5

Appendix D - Operators, Vessels, Terminals and Segments by State (2013)

StateOperators aVessels aTerminals aSegments a
AL1344
AK31537126
AR1422
CA11534296
CT31267
DE1133
FL471010
GA2658
HI1422
IL4211016
IA--11
KY1333
LA2211920
MA8491221
MD3322
ME5202637
MI9202955
MN1215
MO2444
MS13--
MT1122
NH1122
NJ3391424
NY10455184
NC4302932
OH14510
OK1334
OR2355
PA3377
RI1277
SC591110
TN1744
TX41166
UT1122
VA491314
VT11233
WA12463979
WI51488
WV1211
U.S. territory2356
Non-U.S. location2369
Total128499441741

a Missing values denoted by (-). Route segments were defined as the direct travel from one terminal to another.