De Blasio Ferry Could Face Cost Challenges, but Offer New Resiliency

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An illustration of what the coming Red Hook landing will look like.


An illustration of what the coming Red Hook landing will look like.


Mayor de Blasio’s planned Citywide Ferry Service, which he recently announced would include a landing at Atlantic Basin in Red Hook, has been popular with Council members and community boards in neighborhoods that will be served by the service when it begins in 2017. But transit experts say it remains to be seen whether the ferry will be able to maintain the same price as a subway ride, as the city intends.

Citywide Ferry is motivated by a need for resiliency to adapt to climate change, a desire to spur real-estate development in waterfront areas and the hope of easing an over-capacity subway system. Ferry advocates hope the plan will boost waterfront development and promote use of the city’s underused waterways.

The plan is challenging for a variety of reasons, including what some transit advocates believe is an unusually rapid launch timetable, the costliness of subsidizing service and the niche nature of the ferry market.

“An expansion at this scale and speed is unprecedented in NYC history,” says Inna Guzenfeld, a ferry advocate who has studied the economics of Citywide Ferry Service and is skeptical of its price point.

Citywide Ferry will debut in 2017 with routes linking Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, Astoria and the Far Rockaways; routes to Soundview in the Bronx and the Lower East Side are planned for 2018 and connections to Stapleton on Staten Island and Coney Island are also in the pipeline. The existing East River Ferry service, which services 4,000 daily customers according to the EDC, will have its current $4 per ride cost reduced to $2.75 to be uniform with the rest of Citywide Ferry and subway service.

The service will be run by Hornblower, the company that runs Statue Cruises service to the Statue of Liberty.

In addition to $55 million for infrastructure upgrades, the city will invest an additional $30 million a year in operating costs per year for the project, which will go toward subsidizing its estimated 4.6 million annual trips.

A floating history

Ferries once flourished as mass transit system in New York City, appropriate for a city where many residents live on one of three islands. Eventually, the development of bridges and land mass transit systems lead to their decline. At one point, other than the Staten Island ferry, the city operated no ferries at all, before ferries from Weekhawken and Hoboken were introduced 1986.

The Citywide Ferry plan has been welcomed by maritime advocates, who feel that the city’s waterways are overflowing with potential.

Carolina Salguero is the founder and president of Portside NY, a maritime organization based on the Mary A. Whalen. The ship, which is docked near the Atlantic Basin, serves as their office space as well as a cultural hub where the group hosts walking tours and educational events showcasing the history of the Red Hook waterfront.

“That history is really forgotten,” Salguero says. She sees the waterways in Red Hook as interwoven with the community and balks at the impression that the neighborhood is cut off by the water. She envisions the city’s reinvestment in ferries not as something new but as Red Hook remembering an older version of itself: a bustling maritime neighborhood where the commercial and cultural life was energized by the rhythm of boats coming in and out of the shore.

“No one 60 or a hundred years ago would have referred to anything being cut off by the water,” Salguero says of Red Hook. “The water was this amazing transportation asset and resource. And there were boats of all sorts zipping in and out of here. So we’re really hoping that this sort of thing is like redeveloping a lost muscle, or recovering a lost language.”

A pricey ride

But rejuvenating New York City’s ferry system comes at a cost.

Developing an appropriate price for Citywide Ferry is tricky. Most mass transit requires subsidy, as fare prices only offset a portion of the operating cost. NYC’s subway system is subsidized about 62 cents per ride, the LIRR about $8 per ride, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

But ferries are different, says Guzenfeld, a former planning consultant and an alumna of Pratt’s urban planning MS program. They are seen as a “luxury good”; without the one-seat ride of train or bus, Guzenfeld says, they don’t have the captive ridership of MTA mass transit.

“There is no one who has to take that ferry,” Guzenfeld says. “They will take trains and busses.”

According to Jeff Zupan, a planner at the Regional Plan Association, the market is fixed by existing transit networks and the residential distribution. For this reason, he says, ferry service is a niche market. . Because ferries aren’t a necessity but rather a faster option for a fixed number of seafront residents, some advocates believe it’s hard to justify lowering ticket prices to match subway fare.

Other advocates are more optimistic. Roland Lewis, President and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, a coalition that promotes seafront revitalization in the NY region, believes Citywide Ferry’s popularity will be affordable for the city, pointing to the success of the East River Ferry. That ferry, which launched in 2011, brought aboard more than double its anticipated ridership of 400,000 within its first year of use, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation. But experts say this may have been a fluke and caution against using it as a barometer for Citywide Ferry’s success.

The Rockaway problem

The EDC says that the per ride subsidy for Citywide Ferry Service will be $6.60, based on a projection of 4.6 million annual trips, which they point out is lower than the per trip subsidy for the Long Island Rail Road ($8) and Express Bus ($15).

But routes within the Citywide plan cost the city different amounts, depending on distance, and the Rockaway route is estimated to cost the city $30 per ride.

There’s no area more in need of ferry service more the Rockaways. Average commute times from Rockaway Beach to Manhattan’s central business district range between 90 to 120 minutes. Commuters have fewer transit options, and the A train line in the area was heavily damaged during Hurricane Sandy, raising questions about future resilience.

Far Rockaway ferry service has been attempted before, but never continued after trial periods because the cost of the per-ride subsidy was too high and a strong enough market did not exist to justify it. The route had 827 daily riders in September 2014 and was cancelled, leading to outcries from the community, as well as public advocate Letitia James, to keep it.

Zupan and other experts say the Far Rockaway route is so costly because of its distance from Manhattan. Two boats going back and forth might result in an hourly service, which may be too infrequent to create a strong a ridership. More frequent service with boats leaving every 15 minutes would require 6 to 8 boats, Zupan estimates, and that level of service becomes expensive quickly. But, he says, the Rockaways route is “a good one to try,” as residents have lacked adequate transit options for years.

In 2006, Zupan did a survey of all the ferry services the city had offered since 1986. The city tried out 70 different ferry lines in this period, he learned, of which about 20 were successful. The common factors to successful ferry lines, he concluded: a local population working or living within walking distance to the ferry, a lack of quality transit options in the area, and affordability.

He predicts that the Citywide Ferry service will do well in areas where infrastructure has not caught up with development, areas like Long Island City and Astoria. And it will do especially well in areas where the trip across the water is a short one. While the entire Citywide Ferry service is not expected to break even, he says the city’s plans for Soundview in the Bronx may not have a strong enough ridership due to its relative low density, and the Far Rockaways plan may prove too expensive.

Zupan says that there’s no real way to make the ferry subsidies sustainable beyond cross-subsidizing from bridge tolls. Rather, he says, the city is going to take the loss and hope Citywide Ferry’s other benefits, like storm resiliency and waterfront development, make it worth it.

“You can’t cross-subsidize if you don’t have a money maker,” Zupan says. “It’s not going to break even.”

For these reasons, Guzenfeld is skeptical of a ferry fare matched to MTA fare as a permanent fixture of the plan.

“If the rationale is we’re going to get people to ride the ferry by making it competitive…that i think is potentially problematic,” she says. Guzenfeld says that training people to take ferry service based on cheap cost despite its prohibitive per-ride subsidy may not be a good idea long-term.

Rising fares could undermine support

But communities getting ferry service have already latched on to the idea of keeping its price point the same as subway fare.

Florence Koulouris, District Manager of Queens Community Board 1, which includes Astoria, says that the community is eager for the ferry because it will bring business to the area and increase transit options. “We’re all in countdown mode,” Koulouris says. But she’d be less supportive of a higher price point.

“I think that everybody is taxed right now,” Koulouris says. “Raising transportation costs for people to go to work is not a positive.”

Salguero thinks the price-point is important for bringing in new users. “I think one of the things about the ferries is, for lower-income people, the fact that they’ve generally been a higher price is a deterrent. So if it’s the same price as the subway, I think we’re going to see a lot of commuters in places like Red Hook opting to use it,” she says.

When asked by City Limits whether the Citywide Ferry fare would remain the same as
subway fare after a pilot period, EDC responded: “Our goal is for Citywide Ferry Service fare to be pegged to MTA fare.”

And the city has stressed that equity is one of the goals of the Citywide Ferry. A press release announcing the Atlantic Basin landing mentions Red Hook NYCHA housing that is within walking distance.

However, some NYCHA residents who spoke to City Limits were not interested in the Citywide Ferry because they see ferries as vehicles of gentrification and symbols of a changing neighborhood.

“It’s not for us, it’s for the new people coming in,” says Eddie Edwards, a resident of Red Hook’s NYCHA housing who frequents Coffey Park. Edwards commutes by bicycle, subway, and bus and says he would not be interested in taking a ferry even at a discounted cost. Other residents who spoke to City Limits either weren’t aware of the Citywide Ferry plan or said they weren’t interested in using it.

Walking to the subway from Red Hook’s NYCHA houses takes longer than the trip to the planned ferry landing Atlantic basin, but only by a few minutes. This indicates that a ferry could be the better option for residents commuting to Manhattan’s central business district if the price is right. But hesitance to embrace ferries from low-income residents are not unearned-privately run ferry services, like the NY Water Taxi in Red Hook, cater to vacationers and tourists and not commuters. And sentiments that ferry services transform neighborhoods reflect reality: experts say the service has been spurred in part by newer seafront development and will, intentionally or not, drive even more development.

“If you’re going to have successful ferry service, you need to develop markets at every stop,” Guzenfeld says. “In that way it’s a tool of gentrification.” She says a big motivator behind the East River Ferry and Citywide Ferry Service is luxury development along Greenpoint and Williamsburg and the influx of higher-income earners who needed a faster way to get to work in Manhattan’s central business district. According to the EDC, the East River Ferry has lead to $500 million of increased residential real estate value mostly contained to areas within a half-mile of ferry landings.

An additional concern that experts have about Citywide Ferry service is the lack of free transfers from subways, which the EDC says will not be immediately available when the service launches in 2017.

“If they expect the ferry service to have any modicum of success they’ve got to have free transfer,” Zupan told City Limits. He says that other concerns, like making sure bus routes divert to ferry service, would be pointless without a free transfer. Not doing so creates a “two fare zone,” something that the city did away with when they implemented the Metrocard, Zupan says.

An EDC spokesperson told City Limits that they are waiting to integrate subway and bus transfers because the MTA is planning on phasing out metro cards in the near future. Their expectation is that when the MTA’s new generation of fare payment debuts–whatever form it takes–it will be integrated into Citywide Ferry Service.

Pros and cons for the environment

While experts believe that ferry systems, like other forms of mass transportation, can reduce emissions from automobiles by providing an alternative, could come with their own set of environmental risks.

The project’s timeline makes it difficult to know the impact it will have on air and water quality. According to Citywide Ferry Service’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, exhaust from the ferries means “the operation of the proposed project could potentially have a significant adverse impact on air quality.” And the DEIS goes on to say that, “full mitigation of the significant adverse air quality impacts that would potentially result from CFS operations is not possible by the 2017 project launch.”

A spokesman for EDC told City Limits that while there will be emissions, they would “not represent a significant adverse impact on public health.” EDC also says that the level of emissions is as much as is expected from any citywide mass transit system.

Additionally, EDC told City Limits that they don’t expect Citywide Ferry to result in water quality impacts, saying that ferry landings are spread along hardened shorelines and any sediment disturbed wouldn’t impact nearby habitats.

However, Robert Pirani, a Program Director with the NY-NJ Harbor-Estuary Program, told City Limits that if ferry landings are not positioned right, they could block sunlight and be harmful to marine life.

“The water within the first 20 feet of the shoreline are a critical nursery for young fish,” Pirani says. He also recommends greener engines that use less fossil fuels to reduce emissions.

EDC told City Limits that they will be “exploring alternative technologies and fuels.” And in a statement, Hornblower said that they will be using materials to improve air quality and reduce emissions including “LED lighting which reduces energy consumption.”

The allure of resilience

The substantial financial cost and potential environmental impact of the ferry is justified, in part, by the role ferries would play in increasing the city’s disaster resilience. New York has a history of implementing temporary ferry service to replace destroyed infrastructure or as a vehicle for emergency evacuation.

“We had 9/11, a transit strike, a blackout, each time ferry transit came to the rescue to get people around,” Lewis says, adding, “We’re island people, living on a coastal city.”

After the September 11 attacks, 17 percent of evacuees used ferries to leave Manhattan, according to the Wagner School of Public Service. Nearly half a million people evacuated the island of Manhattan in a few hours, an amount that maritime organizations point out was greater than the famous sea evacuation of allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France in WWII.

Salguero was working as a photojournalist on 9/11 and witnessed the evacuation of Lower Manhattan firsthand, arriving at Ground Zero on her powerboat, she says. She was amazed by the evacuation and says it isn’t talked about enough.

More recently, ferry service played a role in replacing damaged infrastructure from superstorm Sandy. For two years after Sandy, the city offered ferry service between Pier 11 and the Rockaways, with a discounted Rockaways fare subsidized by federal funds. The city cites failure of A train service in the Rockaways as one of the motivations to prioritize a ferry landing there.

And the city is still recovering from Sandy: When the L-train shuts down in 2019 for an 18 month period, ferry service will be one of the alternatives the city expects riders to turn to.

Resilience in the face of climate change factored into the push for ferry service in Red Hook. According to the NY Rising Community Reconstruction Plan for Red Hook, recent storms remind New Yorkers that we live in “a new reality defined by rising sea levels and extreme weather events that will occur with increased frequency and power.”

And according to a 2013 paper by Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, “Ferries are typically the first mode of transportation to resume operation following emergency events,” due to their limited reliance on the electrical grid. Experts also point out that ferries address redundancy-having multiple transit options available should one fail.

Guzenfeld sees these as some of the enduring strengths of ferry service, something that should be taken into account when the cost of subsidization is considered.

“What communities see in ferry service is a tool for disaster resiliency,” she says.

For these and other reasons, she is hopeful for Citywide Ferry’s success despite doubts about the numbers. “Ferry economics are very unforgiving,” Guzenfeld says. “I would love to see this ferry system overcome those economics. But we can’t ignore them.”

3 thoughts on “De Blasio Ferry Could Face Cost Challenges, but Offer New Resiliency

  1. Kudos for this comprehensive and thoughtful review. I found Zupan’s comments especially insightful.

    However, I was surprised by the absence (unless I missed it) of an explicit passenger-volume comparison to the subway system. The prospective Citywide Ferry will carry 4.6 million passengers a year (that’s in the 7th paragraph). As we all know, the subways carry 5 to 6 million passengers on a typical weekday. This 300-400-fold difference strongly suggests that expanded ferry service can’t be considered a palliative for systemwide subway crowding.

    I have a question as well. Toward the end, the article states that on 9/11 nearly half-a-million people were evacuated from Manhattan by ferries and other boats. A source is mentioned but no link is provided. I recall looking into that claim in 2002 and being unable to find meaningful documentation, leading me to view it as an urban legend. Can the author comment? Thanks.

    • I remember reading in the SI Advance about boats coming across from Staten Island picking up SI residents. They hung banners on their boats with their destination – ‘Port Richmond’, etc. They were taken back across to SI and dropped off at various points along the north shore waterfront. Many tour boats also took people back to NJ.

    • I remember reading in the SI Advance about boats coming across from Staten Island picking up SI residents. They hung banners on their boats with their destination – ‘Port Richmond’, etc. They were taken back across to SI and dropped off at various points along the north shore waterfront. Many tour boats also took people back to NJ.

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