Since the end of the ferry-centric mayoral campaign, I’ve tried hard to avoid the issue of tax-payer supported boats. It hasn’t been easy. The NYC Economic Development Corporation released two different studies on ferry service and city subsidies, but I just couldn’t again tackle the issue. Now, though, it’s come back, and I’d like to revisit it.
The latest comes to us from Ydanis Rodriguez, the new chair of the City Council’s transportation committee. Rodriguez is, by most accounts, a great choice for the position. He understands the city’s bus and subway systems, isn’t focused on the primacy of the automobile and has embraced plans to drastically reduce, if not outright eliminate, pedestrian deaths. He has one Achilles’ heel: ferries.
In a wide-ranging interview with Politicker’s Ross Barkan and in a subsequent exchange on Twitter, Rodriguez’s desire to do something with ferries — even for neighborhoods where ferry service isn’t practical — came through. Politicker paraphrased: “Mr. Rodriguez further hopes to boost transportation options for his own Washington Heights and Inwood-based Manhattan district and in the outer boroughs, where options are often scarce. He’s already planning a push to bring ferry service to Upper Manhattan near Dyckman Street that would whisk Inwood residents downtown.”
Now, the biggest problem with Washington Heights is self-evident from, well, the neighborhood’s name. It’s in the heights! That’s not just the name of a Broadway show, folks; that’s an accurate geographic description of the neighborhood. It’s high up there; it’s not near the water. Even the marina at Dyckman St. is further away from the subway for nearly every single resident of the area, and the ferry service itself is impractical. Where does a boat from Dyckman St. go? To 39th St. and the West Side Highway? To the World Financial Center, itself a 13-stop express train ride from Dyckman Street? What’s next — a call for better ferry service for Ditmas Park?
Now, to be fair to Rodriguez, he later told me that he would more than willing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. I urged him instead to take whatever city money he would want to use for this ferry service and invest it in the bus network or the subway. If he feels transit options from his district aren’t sufficient enough, money for increased service along the high-capacity transit routes that would be a far better use of the same taxpayer dollars. For buses, in particular, a $9 million investment — similar to the city’s contribution to the East River ferries — could go a very long way toward improving reliability and frequency of service.
But let’s indulge in a rough cost-benefit analysis. I’ve touched on this before in examining ferries vs. Citi Bikes, and I cast a similarly leery eye toward ferry subsidies in both August and October. The problem is that the best ferry routes — those areas with high demand, people willing to pay higher prices and easy waterfront access — are tapped out. As Jeff Zupan from the RPA said last year, “Ferry service is a niche, and as a niche there are places where it might work well but they’re few and far between. Most of them that have succeeded are in place.”
The city, through its EDC documents, says that it subsidizes ferries to the tune of over $2.25 a ride. This is far more than the city’s contributions to New York City Transit, and the ferry fares are still steeper. Meanwhile, the successful East River ferries carry a hair over 3000 passengers per weekday. The M15, a very successful Select Bus Servicer out, carries nearly 20 times as many riders. Two peak-hour A trains can carry more riders than the ferries do all day.
Outside of the ridership and economics, there are questions of resources as well. Should the City Council be devoting the same time to ferries as it does to, say, considering the proper way to roll out bus lanes? Should DOT or the MTA? Should NYCEDC? While New York is a city dependent upon and at the mercy of its waterways, most New Yorkers don’t live near the water and don’t work near the water. Furthermore, we have a vibrant subway system that provides a relatively high-speed, high-capacity route through disparate neighborhoods that needs more attention. Ferries ultimately are simply a distraction from real issues. Let’s leave them at that.