For those of you who follow me on Twitter, it’s no surprise that I don’t have a particularly high view of ferries as a solution to New York City’s mobility issues. They’re very expensive to operate and subsidize and require a two-fare system, serve only those New Yorkers — generally wealthier and with more transit options — who live and work near the water, and don’t carry enough passengers. Last year, I wrote about my general disillusionment with ferries and the flaws in the mayor’s ferry plan while offering a proposal to fix the plan. Still, the so-called five-borough plan has moved on, none the better for time and feedback.
In today’s paper, The New York Times does a deep dive on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ferry proposal, and Patrick McGeehan’s piece is a doozy. The city is sinking $325 million into the ferry service, outside of annual operating subsidies; expects just 4.5 million riders per year; and is willing to sell off the assets if the ferry service flounders. It’s an uber-expensive Hail Mary, and it’s not hard to dwell on how $325 million in direct contributions could go a long way toward a real solution for increased access to transit.
What follows are some choice passages from McGeehan’s article:
The city has already spent $6 million on four commuter boats in 2016 and could own more than 30 in a few years. Mr. de Blasio also plans to spend at least $85 million to create 13 additional landings for the ferries and a home port for them at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But the mayor has raised the stakes in ways few other places have by pledging that a ferry ride would cost the same as subway fare, $2.75. That is a departure from San Francisco; Sydney, Australia; and other cities where extensive commuter-ferry systems have long operated. They tend to charge more to ride ferries than buses or trains, and their ferry fares are based on the length of the trip. The one-fare plan fits with the liberal agenda of Mr. de Blasio, who has championed “transit equity” for all New Yorkers. To fulfill the mayor’s promise, the city will have to contribute a substantial operating subsidy, a commitment that several of his predecessors were unwilling to make….
City officials have been leaning on Hornblower Cruises and Events, the San Francisco-based company they chose in March to operate the service, to order the boats it will need. Hornblower, which runs cruises to the Statue of Liberty, has settled on a design for 149-passenger boats and is negotiating with a few boatyards around the country to build 18 of them, at a cost of nearly $4 million each…Maria Torres-Springer, the president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said Hornblower was chosen primarily for its experience in starting ferry services around the country, as well as on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The company, however, has limited experience with helping commuters get to and from work every day, though city officials said that did not weigh heavily against it…
Mr. de Blasio announced that the home port for the expanded service would be a pier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But that pier is so dilapidated that it may not be rebuilt before 2018, Ms. Glen said. If the city-owned service starts next summer, as scheduled, the home port is likely to be in New Jersey at first, Ms. Glen said. The city’s ferry system, however, will not serve New Jersey…Hornblower will need nine boats to cover the three new routes, none of which it has now. Mike Anderson, former chief executive of Washington State Ferries, which runs a large fleet of ferries in the Seattle area, said that to have that many boats built would normally take a few years…
The city estimates that it will cost about $70 million to have 18 ferries built. Once they are done, the city plans to buy them from Hornblower, which will operate them for six years, with a possibility of renewing the contract for an additional five years. Ms. Glen said the city was employing “good, smart economics” in deciding to own the boats. “If, for some reason, Hornblower doesn’t perform,” she said, the city would either find another operator or run the system itself, as it does for the Staten Island Ferry. And, she added, “even if the service weren’t to be that successful, the city will have hard assets” that it could sell to recoup some of its investment.
By itself, none of these anecdotes are enough to sink the ferry plan, and city officials continue to insist to me that their numbers are rigorous enough to support the extremely high subsidies and capital costs considering even their optimistic, but still low, ridership projections. Yet, it seems as though the city is flying by the seat of their pants. They picked a company many say doesn’t have the right kind of experience for a daily ferry service or the boats to support the plans, and the likelihood of delay is growing.
As I’ve written in the past, too, it’s not clear who this plan and the subsidies benefit. The neighborhoods along the waterfront in Queens and Brooklyn south of Astoria are all wealthy with other transit options. The Astoria dock serves some middle class housing, but the two-fare system is a barrier for many who have to take a subway or bus to get to work on the other end of their boat rides. The Brooklyn Army Terminal is far from everywhere other than Industry City, and the Bay Ridge stop isn’t expected to have high ridership.
So we the taxpayers of New York City are left footing the bill for a bunch of boats that fit 149 people — fewer than one subway car — and may not serve many in particularly great need of more transit. Who, after all, is going to take a subway or bus to a boat and pay two fares for the privilege? The $325 million the city is so eager to spend could go a long way toward subsidizing transit rides for low-income New Yorkers, prioritizing and improving bus service throughout the city or even funding parts of construction of new subway lines (the real game-changers). But we’re getting boats. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see how transformative they’ll be no matter how the mayor’s office defends this plan.