Home Asides On bad transit ideas and the Staten Island Ferry

On bad transit ideas and the Staten Island Ferry

by Benjamin Kabak

Early last week, The Times ran this editorial on the transit ideas that have come out of the 2013 mayoral campaign, and I sat on the article for a few days. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that candidates have decided to focus, to some degree or another, on transit issues, but on the other, the editorial is incredibly disappointing. It praises the candidates for offering up their ideas without taking a critical look at how nearly all of the ideas have been bad ones.

In fact, the editorial proclaimed many of the transit ideas “good,” and I had to wonder if we were all paying attention to the same campaign. Without even acknowledging John Catsimatidis’ zany monorail plans, The Times praised Christine Quinn’s horrendous Triboro RX SBS route, the new-found love affair with ferries and many plans already in the works, including more Select Bus Service routes and the Penn Station Access plan. “It will take effort and political skill to turn ideas into reality, from the tiny — Ms. Quinn proposes countdown clocks outside subway stations, which would be quite nice — to the transformational. But few jobs are more important for the next mayor,” The Times said.

The worst part though isn’t the fawning over half-hearted attempts at avoiding the city’s serious mobility problems. Rather, it is the framing device The Times used to present it editorial. It launched the piece with praise of Rudy Giuliani’s move to make the Staten Island Ferries free. It is, they said, “a small daily improvement in commuters’ lives that, multiplied by millions of rides and many years, surely adds up to something monumental.” Even though the decision was “influenced as much by politics as by need,” it is “an example of what can happen when a New York mayor highlights and fixes a neglected transportation problem.” Except its not at all.

By making the Staten Island Ferry free, the city has foregone literally millions of dollars annually that could have been invested into the transit system. This money could have been used to improve other connections between Staten Island and the rest of the city. Even if the city had simply installed Metrocard machines and granted ferry riders a free transfer to the subway or bus, the annual take still would have been around $5 million. Over the course of 16 years, that’s around $80 million not available for other improvements for no good reason other than politics. Is it worth it?

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Rob August 5, 2013 - 2:53 pm

Very simply, you are expecting way too much from that newspaper — about transit or anything else.

Epson45 August 5, 2013 - 3:55 pm

NY Times editorial is a non-story.

Hank August 5, 2013 - 4:33 pm

IIRC, when this first came about in 1997, the cost of installing and maintaining the turnstiles far exceeded the potential revenue when factoring in most riders would be getting a free transfer anyway.

Benjamin Kabak August 5, 2013 - 4:34 pm

The analysis assumed a fare below a swipe of a Metrocard. If you set it with NYC Transit fare policies, it would pay for itself relatively quickly and then generate revenue.

Eric F August 6, 2013 - 8:26 am

How many people transfer off the ferry to the subway in Manhattan? If the transfer is free, you get the swipe at the subway entry and you get literally no incremental revenue from the swipe at St. George. On S.I., people are generally taking a bus or train to the ferry terminal, so the same principle holds there. Presumably some percentage of riders are working downtown and walking to and from the ferry terminals, but it’s nowhere near 100% of the ridership.

Theorem Ox August 7, 2013 - 12:48 am

Not to mention, I could imagine a nightmare situation brewing between splitting fares between the MTA (operator of the rail and bus systems in both Manhattan and Staten Island) and the NYCDOT (operator of the ferry) based on the various transfer criteria.

Bolwerk August 5, 2013 - 4:42 pm

You may not even need to install more turnstiles. At least on the SIRT side, you could just put the ferry within fare control. It might not even be necessary to do that on both sides of the river.

I suggest the SIRT side because the Manhattan subways are a bit further from the ferries.

Alon Levy August 5, 2013 - 5:21 pm

But most people who ride the ferry aren’t connecting from the SIR.

Bolwerk August 5, 2013 - 7:09 pm

Unless crowding SIRT entrances is a concern, or it’s a very circuitous way to enter, what’s the problem with that? The idea is to make ferry users contribute to the transit system.

Alon Levy August 5, 2013 - 9:18 pm

The point is that they would have to install new turnstiles, and have more station agents guarding them.

Bolwerk August 5, 2013 - 11:40 pm

I admittedly don’t remember the arrangement there too well, but they could just possibly gate the complex, directing all passengers through SIRT fare control. They certainly have precedent for not having station agents guarding entrances now, and SIRT may have been where that began.

What didn’t occur to me before is that I guess that monkeys with the ability to collect a fare from SIRT riders who are coming from elsewhere in SI, since they didn’t pay a fare to board SIRT in the first place.

Alon Levy August 6, 2013 - 3:12 am

Yeah. Faregates require that level of complexity of fare barriers, and at the ferry’s traffic level, they’re unlikely to pay back their construction, maintenance, and station staffing costs.

Lady Feliz August 6, 2013 - 12:39 pm

You’ve never been to St. George, have you? The fare control for the SI Railway is downstairs and consists of about 15 turnstiles that can barely handle the crowds getting off the trains during rush hour, never mind ever single ferry rider. The you have to go upstairs to enter the main terminal to catch a boat. On top of that, all the bus ramps and street entries are above the SIR entrance, so you’d have to herd all the riders downstairs to pay, then herd them back upstairs to catch a boat.

A non-starter of an idea.

Bolwerk August 6, 2013 - 3:08 pm

Behl, St. George isn’t Grand Central. SIers can handle crowds just as well as anyone else.

Anyway, I don’t think and never thought it is a good idea. I was just pointing out to one of the posters straining to discover an impossibility that there are usually more options than just A and !A. I would prefer to just leave SIRT alone until new fare media is released, which is probably the better part of a decade away at the earliest.

Bolwerk August 6, 2013 - 3:13 pm

For that matter, if SIRT were within fare control, they wouldn’t need the turnstiles unless they were leaving WITHOUT using the ferry.

Of course, the only way that would work would be to install exit turnstiles in Manhattan, which I guess sort of runs you into the problems Alon mentioned – but maybe not as badly as he suggested.

But, don’t worry, I still prefer the “do nothing” alternative.

Henry August 6, 2013 - 9:18 pm

There are turnstile-like things in the ferry terminal. I’m not exactly sure what they’re they’re for, but they exist.

Alon Levy August 7, 2013 - 5:05 pm

In Vancouver there are turnstiles at the ferry; they don’t have fare control, they just count how many passengers are riding the ferry, and lock if the number of passengers exceeds the safe capacity.

Henry August 6, 2013 - 9:17 pm

No, they pay a fare to leave SIRT and enter the ferry terminal.

Bolwerk August 5, 2013 - 4:38 pm

Not that it’s a good idea, but, from a capacity standpoint, a monorail is probably less dumb than to SBS, which these clowns literally think can be used in lieu of a subway. It’s only zany in the sense that it’s a thought nobody else is thinking, not in that it’s more dumb than what other candidates are thinking.

It’s no surprise the NY Times editorial board understands none of that. Their entire perspective on transit is probably as reactionary as any other mass media’s: the point of transit is to get the plebes out of the way of our taxis, limos, and private cars. Who cares if a bus is slow? As long as it’s a cattle-car, so we are maximizing the subsidy we offer those worthless peasants!

Bolwerk August 5, 2013 - 4:39 pm


Clarification: not to say SBS is inherently dumb, but using it in lieu of a subway is.

Henry August 6, 2013 - 9:21 pm

The problem is that a monorail is very typical 1960’s thinking, where people will want to ride the groovy new transit system because it looks cool and futuristic. This is the kind of political thinking that gave us the Detroit People Mover.

Sydney is in the process of dismantling its monorail because it was very expensive to run, vendor-locked, created an oppressive street environment, and was just generally not very useful. Considering that Sydney has a lot more open space than we do, it’s doubtful that monorail technology is appropriate for Manhattan.

John-2 August 5, 2013 - 7:37 pm

If only they had built the BMT’s Narrows tunnel back in the 1920s, there would be a one-seat or one-transfer ride from Staten Island now, and the whole dispute over triple charges never would have come up in the first place.

Chris August 5, 2013 - 8:10 pm

Given that NYC promised Staten Island transit options which never were delivered, I have no problems seeing the ferry stay a free ride. Mind you, I now advocate giving SIRT to the Port Authority with the proviso that they rebuild and reactivate the North shore line, and connect it to the rest of the PATH system in New Jersey. If the PA is going to throw away billions of NY’er dollars, they might as well do something useful with those dollars, and take a money loser off NY’s hands….

Duke August 5, 2013 - 9:20 pm

Given that a Staten Island commute is often a three seat ride: 1)SIRR or bus 2)ferry 3)subway, you would double charge a lot of people unless you revised the free transfer policy. But that is addressable.

The key people hit by putting a fare on the ferry would be all the tourists joyriding it for the view. From that perspective I suppose there is valid lost revenue.

Still, the fact that the ferry is operated by NYCDOT and not the MTA makes the argument that “this is additional funding for transit” sketchy. What it would be is additional general revenue for the city.

Eric F August 6, 2013 - 8:56 am

I agree that the incremental revenue should come from the vast tourist market. However, many of those tourists seem to be arriving from the Red Lines. I’m going to beat the dead horse here that the MTA should have some tourist trap retail in there and get revenue from that source. From the MTA revenue perspective, that terminal is like having a gold seam one foot under your backyard, and they stick a patio over it rather than dig out the ore.

Jeff August 6, 2013 - 9:52 am

As Duke said, the free ferry is not an MTA issue, its strictly a NYCDOT one since they own and operate it.

To that note, I think your argument is also exactly where the city was going with the construction of the world’s biggest Ferris wheel and the new developments in St. George in order to get some sort of return for the free rides they’ve been giving away to tourists. Also would make Staten Island an actual destination.

Jerrold August 5, 2013 - 10:19 pm

But wasn’t the actual reason for making the ferry free the “One City -One Fare” concept?
I believe that the reasoning was that if somebody’s commute is bus-subway and somebody else’s commute is bus(or SIR)-ferry-subway, then the cost of EITHER commute should be only one fare.

Vance August 6, 2013 - 4:28 am

Bus Rapid Transit is only a halfway step. Those BRT lanes should gradually be replaced with streetcars and light rail. Smoother, faster, cleaner, safer, quieter.


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