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Ep. 18 of ‘The Next Stop Is…’ on the 7 line extension, Vignelli and ferries

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NextStopis We’re back with an all-new episode of “The Next Stop Is…,” the only Second Ave. Sagas’ podcast around. Eric and I talked today about delays, strikes, and ferries. Oh my?

We start with a discussion on the 7 train extension’s recent troubles and what it may mean for other MTA capital projects. We talked about the LIRR union’s offer to postpone a strike from July to September and delved once more into the love affair with ferries. We ended with some words on the sad passing of Massimo Vignelli.

This week’s episode runs about 20 minutes, and if you haven’t left work for the day, give it a listen on your ride home. (But don’t worry; it will still be timely in the morning.) You can grab the podcast right here on iTunes or pull the raw MP3 file. If you enjoy what you hear, subscribe to updates on iTunes as well and consider leaving us a review. If you have any issues you’d like us to tackle when we return in two weeks, leave ’em in the comments below.

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From the Bronx, another cry for ferries

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Subsidizing individual cab rides would be cheaper than funding a Soundview ferry.

A few years ago, as part of a sponsorship/gimmick, baseball fans could take a ferry from Wall St. to Yankee Stadium. I happened to be working at the federal courthouse that summer, and one warm evening, my sister and I made the journey. It was fun and silly, albeit a little slow. The ferry dropped us off in the Bronx on the other side of the Metro-North station and the Major Deegan, a good 10-minute walk away from the stadium. We liked the boat ride but opted to take the 4 train from then on that year.

This story highlights a particular problem with ferry service to and from just about anywhere in the city. Because of choices our New York predecessors made in the mid-20th century, most destinations — housing, jobs, attractions — aren’t near the waterfront, and ferry service has to offer a far superior ride with added amenities to be better than the alternatives. This inconvenience of reality has not stopped our politicians from trumpeting ferries as some sort of amazing solution to our transit woes, and on Monday, the call came from the Bronx.

In March, just a few weeks before the East River Ferry operators had to raise their single-ride weekend fares to $6, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. penned a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio requesting a three-year trial for a ferry from Soundview in the Bronx with two stops on the Upper East Side and an ultimate Wall St. destination. Crain’s New York broke the story on Monday, and in Thornton McEnery’s reporting, we see more of the same old from our elected.

In a March 10 letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a copy of which has been obtained by Crain’s, Mr. Diaz requests ferry service between the Soundview area of the Bronx and Manhattan’s East Side. Citing the success of ferries from Brooklyn and Queens to Manhattan, and the geography of a coastline neighborhood that is not well served by public transit, Mr. Diaz’s letter requests that Mr. de Blasio endorse a three-year pilot program to test out the long-term viability of a new, permanent ferry route.

Mr. Diaz asks the mayor in the letter to acknowledge “the significant benefits ferry service between the Bronx and Manhattan would yield not just for my borough, but our entire city’s economy and our shared environment.”

The idea of a ferry between the southeast Bronx and midtown was not conjured up out of nowhere. The city saw a considerable expansion of ferry services during the Bloomberg administration, which also commissioned a study of the feasibility of ways to utilize the city’s waterways. The preliminary findings of that study were released late in 2013 and highlight Soundview as a promising origination point for a new ferry route. “It is felt that creating wider accessibility to the Bronx waterfront is an important policy consideration,” wrote the authors of the Citywide Ferry Study. “Additionally, there is opportunity for connecting Bronx residents to hospital and other job centers on the Upper East Side.”

I’ve touched upon the EDC report in the past, and it’s worth revisiting it to see if economic estimates from a group that loves to subsidize everything lines up with Diaz’s claim that ferry service would yield “significant benefits” for “our entire city’s economy.” Based on the EDC assessments of the Soundview ferry routes, it would cost at least $20 million to build ample ferry landings to support the service, and annual subsidies would run to approximately $6 million a year. The upper bounds of ridership by 2018 is approximately 1500 people per day — or the same number that can fit one one peak-hour subway train — and the subsidy per passenger could range from around $10-$24 depending upon the fare.

If anything, that’s a drag on New York’s economy, and not some panacea for for “our entire city’s economy and our shared environment.” Any bus route, for instance, that cost $10 per passenger to operate — let alone $24 — would have been eliminated years ago, and no one would have noticed. This is the fundamental problem with ferry service: It doesn’t solve any real problems for any real amount of people.

If we’re going to consider spending $20 million on upfront capital costs and $6 million on annual subsidies to improve transit, let’s figure out a way to spend it that will attract tens or hundreds of thousands of people a day rather than ones of thousands. Let’s figure out a way to talk this ferry energy and devote to real change. The fact that a politician is making this request and that it’s a serious one tells us all we need to know about the potential for transit growth in New York City today.

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Ep. 15 of ‘The Next Stop Is…’ talks ferries, BusTime, and Moynihan Station

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NextStopis With the tragic explosion at 116th St. and its impact on Metro-North dominating the news on Wednesday, I didn’t have the chance to unveil the latest episode of “The Next Stop Is…”, the one and only podcast for Second Ave. Sagas. So now that everything’s back to normal along the Park Avenue Viaduct, let’s dive in.

We start out with a reminder of my upcoming Problem Solvers session on the future of fare payment. Get your tickets now as the Transit Museum tells me they’re going fast. Then, Eric and I tackle a few hot-button issues from the past few weeks. We discuss the Brooklyn and Queens launch of BusTime and the way it can improve bus travel in the area. Then we delve into the problems and political popularity of ferries, and we explore how air rights could affect future development of Moynihan Station.

This week’s recording checks in at just over 19 minutes — a perfect running time for your morning ride when you don’t really want to think about it anyway. You can grab the podcast right here on iTunes or pull the raw MP3 file. If you enjoy what you hear, subscribe to updates on iTunes as well and consider leaving us a review. If you have any questions you’d like us to tackle, leave ’em in the comments below. I’ll be back with more in the morning.

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Thoughts on the political popularity of ferries

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More ferry terminals may pop up around the water, but to what end? (Photo by East River Ferry on flickr)

Whether we recognize it or not, New York City is facing something of a transportation crisis. The problem itself won’t come to a true head for a while, but outside of a few avenues, our current transit options are nearly maxed out. Our roads are continually congested, and without significant expansion, the subway system can’t withstand too many more trains — or passengers — per hour during peak times. Buses and a real bus rapid transit network could pick up some slack, but lately the focus has turned to the city’s myriad waterways.

For much of the 2013 mayoral campaign, we heard candidates from various parties talk endlessly about the opportunities for expanded ferry service. It sounds good, right? These are politicians actually promoting increased transit, and at a time when subway construction is exceedingly expensive and no one at the MTA is willing to try to rein in those costs, sticking some boats on the water seems downright economically responsible. It is but a political smoke screen as well, and I’ll get to that shortly.

Lately, the jockeying for ferries has come from the local level. Ydanis Rodriguez, the new chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, has been agitating for more ferry service for his constituents even though most of them live on a bluff high above the nearest coast. Now, Queens reps are calling for more ferry service too. The Queens Chronicle reports:

The words “commute” and “New York City” usually make one think of squeaky, dirty, crowded subway cars snaking through tunnels and along elevated rails. Or perhaps one conjures up thoughts of passengers packed into buses like sardines or jockeying for room under bus shelters. Some, especially out here in Queens, may think of a commute as idling on a packed highway in a car. One thing that most New Yorkers may not think of — unless maybe you’re from Staten Island — is boats…

The expansion of ferry service to the East River in 2011, connecting Wall Street and East 34th Street with Brooklyn and Long Island City, has also proved successful, as has a route to the Rockaways that was originally meant to be temporary. Now ferry advocates — and elected officials — are looking to expand service to other parts of Queens with waterfront connections.

…Already expansion beyond Long Island City and Rockaway may be imminent. According to one source, expansion of the East River ferry to Astoria is “more than likely,” and former Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. allocated money toward a feasibility study. Vallone’s successor, Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), said bringing ferry service farther north to Astoria would be a boon for the Western Queens waterfront, especially if they add a stop on Roosevelt Island, where a tech school is slated to be located. “We can find the money for this worthwhile cause,” said Constantinides, a member of the Council’s Transportation Committee. He pointed to Hallets Cove as a location for a ferry, noting the amount of development taking place there and the need for more public transportation.

Throughout the article, Queens politicians and ferry advocates discuss the success of the Rockaway boats and potential landing spots in College Point, Willets Point, Fort Totten or downtown Flushing. One quote in particular sums up the thinking. “We’re on the right path with expanding bus rapid transit and bike lines and now with ferries,” Constantinides said. “We’re not building any more subways. Better utilizing the city’s waterways is the new frontier.”

I have such major issues with this defeatist attitude toward subway construction. We’re giving up because politicians aren’t strong enough to fight back against rampant cost issues or, in the case of Constantinides’ own district, intense NIMBY opposition to a plan that would have brought the subway to Laguardia Airport. We can’t throw in the towel on future subway construction and expect New York to be able to grow. Ferries won’t cut it.

Meanwhile, the comments and coverage concerning ferries fail to make note of the issues of scale. The Rockaway ferry may be a success, but that’s with ridership of 700 per day. One peak-hour subway carries at least twice, and sometimes three times, that amount from Queens or Brooklyn into Manhattan. Ferries can help out around the edges; they can’t affect transformative change or do much to alleviate the transit capacity problems plaguing New York.

The single biggest issue with any New York City ferry network concerns population patterns. New York of the 20th century built inland and, thanks to Robert Moses, rung its waterways with roads. Not too many people live near potential ferry terminals, and not too many work near them either. So a ferry network also involves getting people to and from the terminals, and with fares not unified, such a setup currently involves a steep added cost per day. Most New Yorkers would rather take a crowded train than add $3-$5 per day to their commuting costs.

Furthermore, nearly every place in New York City that is well suited for ferry service already has it. The East River ferries offer relatively quick commutes to areas where people work. Many of the folks who live in uber-expensive waterfront condos in DUMBO, Williamsburg and Long Island City work near Wall Street. Travel patterns shift as one moves further east in Brooklyn and Queens.

But there are political forces at work here that account for the popularity of the boat movement. First, there are no NIMBYs to battle. Some people may object to a nearby ferry terminal and the noise from the boats, but it doesn’t engender the same level of protest that a new subway line or removing a lane of automobile traffic for bus rapid transit would. Second, the costs of starting a ferry line are relatively low and turnaround time is short. Thus, a politician can propose a ferry route, secure funding and attend a ribbon-cutting in a single term while proclaiming to be pro transit. Never mind the fact that, at most, a wildly successful ferry with 4000 daily riders services half of one-tenth of a percent of all New Yorkers. It’s an easy political win.

So we’re stuck in a boat rut. It may make limited sense to examine some ferry routes, but the most they can do is shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic that is the subway system. Without high-capacity expansion, trains will be more crowded than ever before, and New York City will face growth constraints. It would take real leadership to tackle this problem; the ferries are simply a smokescreen.

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‘I’m on a boat’: NYC’s love affair with ferries

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Don’t forget your flippy-floppies.

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.

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Ferries vs. CitiBikes: Thinking about city subsidies

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As the Year of the Ferry draws to a close, New Yorkers with ready access to the waterfront are in for a treat. As a parting gift, Mayor Bloomberg announced today that the city will extend its annual subsidy for ferry service for an additional five years through 2019. While weekend fares will go up to $6 per ride, the city will continue its $3 million annual subsidy, and boats will continue to ply the East River.

“The East River Ferry has been a huge success and demonstrates the demand for efficient, affordable transit to points along the City’s waterfront,” Michael Bloomberg said. “We now can promise commuters and visitors access to these waterfront neighborhoods via ferry for the next five years, sustaining an essential part of our Administration’s transportation vision and spurring economic growth across the City.”

According to a release by the mayor’s office, the ferries have been a success with three million passengers since a June 2011. The ridership has far surpassed initial estimates, and critics of the program — including me — have come around a bit. As the city notes, the ferries have “become an integral part of the city’s transportation infrastructure, improving transit connections between emerging waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, enhancing mobility in New York Harbor for residents and visitors, increasing flexibility for emergency transportation services, and supporting the ongoing reactivation of much of the East River waterfront.”

Now I’m happy to admit that I was wrong on the ferries. I didn’t think the effort was succeed, and I thought the city was wasting taxpayer dollars on something that had tried and failed. But due to the changing demographics of New York, the time is ripe for waterfront ferry service, and people who live in luxury buildings near the DUMBO, Williamsburg and Long Island City waterfronts, as well as though coming from Red Hook, have flocked to the service.

That’s all well and good, but I still think the spending priorities here a bit skewed. The ferries serve a small subset of New Yorkers and aren’t part of a network that can expand much beyond developed areas the waterfront. On the flip side of this coin is another new “last-mile” transportation system that relies on network effects to expand and could reach every single surface street in New York City for much less than the monthly bulk discounts
offered by the ferry. I am, of course, talking about CitiBike, New York’s bikeshare system.

Currently, CitiBike is supported by a $40 million grant from CitiBank that covers five years of service, and the city hasn’t forked over taxpayer dollars beyond some marginal monies. Why? A $3 million annual investment in CitiBike would allow for an increased reach and capacity by nearly 40 percent, and CitiBike needs that network effect to grow. If New York City has a limited pool of money from which it can support transportation, is this focus on ferries that serve neighborhoods that are generally well-off and well-connected neighborhoods off the mark?

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Once more unto the ferries

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The East River Ferry has proven popular, but can other routes follow suit?

It’s become exceedingly challenging to avoid talking about ferries over the last few months. Since the relative success of the East River Ferries, politicians have been drawn to the idea of an expanded ferry network like moths to a flame. Unlike, say, bus or bikes lanes or subway construction, hardly anyone gets upset when new boats are put on the water, and it’s an easier fix. Build out a pier, award a contract, and voilà, ferries. But do the ends justify this new obsession?

Nearly every mayoral candidate this year has focused on ferries as a way to expand the city’s transit network, and in a certain sense, they’re not wrong. For a city that grew up around its waterways, New York has, for decades, ignored that fact. Robert Moses built roads as close to the shoreline as possible, and ferries were an afterthought rather than a centerpiece. Lately, though, boats have come back into fashion. Blame The Lonely Island or blame the cost of subway construction, but one way or another, we can’t — and, to a point, shouldn’t — escape the lure of open seas.

Earlier this week, ferry expansion was the topic of conversation during a New York Metropolitan Transportation Council lunch with Roland Lewis, the President and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. The meeting was billed thusly: “Once upon a time, an extensive, interconnected network of ferryboats populated New York Harbor, transporting millions of passengers throughout the burgeoning region’s islands and peninsulas. Today, after generations of disuse, renewed interest in the City’s waterfront has given rise to the highly successful East River Ferry, which has proven that fast, comfortable, convenient, and affordable ferry service can succeed in modern-day New York.”

In the intervening years since ferryboats populated the harbor, we’ve seen the rise of this thing called the subway, the omnibus, the taxicab and the personal automobile. So it’s quite reasonable why ferries may have fallen out of favor, but here we are. Dan Rivoli of amNew York was on hand to report:

Metropolitan Waterway Alliance’s Roland Lewis, in a meeting with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, touted the city’s “God-given waterway” as a travel alternative in transit-starved neighborhoods and during an emergency on the scale of Superstorm Sandy. “We have an overburdened, congested transit system,” Lewis said. “You have to build a dock, but the transit system is there for us to use on our rivers and through the harbor.”

The Bloomberg administration and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in 2008 unveiled a plan that envisioned ferry service to all five boroughs. In addition to the Staten Island Ferry, there are city-subsidized ferries servicing the East River and residents of the Rockaways and Sunset Park. The other commuter ferries that go to Manhattan serve New Jersey riders. “I’m just hoping that the city will continue to try pilot projects,” Lewis said. “Try it with the ingredients for success in a robust way and see what kind of market develops in these areas.”

…With waterfront development growing, the Metropolitan Waterway Alliance identified 43 sites where commuter ferry service can operate, like Soundview and the South Shore of Staten Island. “It’s a good bargain,” Lewis said.

It’s a good bargain. That’s a claim we need to explore and challenge and question for it is the key to determining if ferry service should be expanded. As Rivoli reports, the city’s Economic Development Corporation has subsidized the East River Ferry — so far the most popular paid intra-city boat — to the tune of $2.25 per ride. That’s about double what the subsidy is for the city’s subway riders, and the ferries have a higher base fare without the option of a free transfer.

Meanwhile, most transit experts believe that it’s all downhill from the East River. “Ferry service is a niche. And as a niche there are places where it might work well but they’re few and far between,” Jeff Zupan, a fellow with the RPA, said to amNew York. “And most of them that have succeeded are in place.”

The problem with ferry service, as I’ve noted before, is that many New Yorkers simply do not live or work near the waterfront, and without integrated ferries into the city’s transit network, it serves no other purpose. People will not take a subway ride to get close enough to walk to a ferry terminal so that they can take the ferry to another place that’s not too near job centers. It’s perfect for the high-end developments that have sprung up in Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg and DUMBO. It’s not at all useful for the millions of landlocked New Yorkers.

So what’s the future of ferry service? And more importantly, what problem is it solving? It can be a complementary part of the transit network, but it’s not going to reach enough New Yorkers to be truly transformative. Hopefully, our next mayor realizes that.

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Once again, on the problem with ferries

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As the R train’s Montague Tube shutdown enters week two, the Bay Ridge ferries from 58th St. in Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan have been three weeks to live. Proposed by politicians and rider advocates as a way to alleviate travel concerns during the tunnel work, the ferry is not what I’d call a necessity. I’ve already expressed my skepticism of the plan, and a piece on its usage and costs in this week’s issue of The Brooklyn Paper does little to convert me.

Will Bredderman did some digging into the ferry and its ridership needs. He found that all of 120 people took the boat on its first day of service earlier this week, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation would not comment on the number of people needed to keep the service afloat. Despite the EDC’s assurances that they were “happy” with the early ridership, based on the cost estimates Bredderman reported, we should be skeptical indeed.

The kicker here is indeed those costs. The fare to ride the ferry is $2, but according to The Brooklyn Paper’s sources, the cost of a trip is around $20 a passenger. In other words, the EDC is subsidizing the ferry to the tune of around $18 a person. That’s a farebox operating ratio of 10 percent, and even if ridership inches up a bit, it won’t increase enough to make these costs more palatable.

Again, then, I’m left questioning the city’s new-found love of ferries. Politicians have embraced them as an alternate means of transportation while flat-out ignoring the fact that many ferry terminals — like the one at 58th St. in Brooklyn — are a mile away from the nearest subway and not located near dense residential areas that would warrant such service. Meanwhile, we don’t discuss costs because the EDC, unlike the MTA, isn’t forthcoming with its budget numbers.

When the MTA cut bus lines in 2010, they did so based, in part, on the cost to operate those buses. Many routes that were bleeding money were eliminated, and in the MTA documents provided at the time, we learned that some of the buses cut cost more per passenger to operate than fares dictated. None of the routes though were as unprofitable as the ferry, and all of the routes serviced orders of magnitude more people than a ferry does. Overall, New York City Transit’s current mid-year farebox operating ratio is projected to be around 58.6% for 2013. Why do we fetishize ferries so much again?

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As Triboro RX looms, a mayoral race on ferries emerges

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A 2008 MTA presentation on the agency’s 40th anniversary previewed a circumferential subway route.

For some reason or another, the 2013 Mayoral campaign has taken a turn for the water. While the MTA is beginning to take a serious look at forecasting transit demand, the front-running Anthony Weiner and Christine Quinn are trying to out-do each other on ferry proposals. It’s a transit policy focused around gimmicks rather than solutions.

The latest wacky idea in a campaign filled with them comes from Christine Quinn. In order to pander to voters supposedly improve commutes for people who I guess work at the Intrepid, Quinn has proposed an express ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Pier 79 near 39th St. and the West Side Highway. Quinn claims such a ferry service would “help spur job growth and economic development on both Staten Island and on Manhattan’s Westside” and would offer a “20-minute direct access to midtown Manhattan.” To provide access to Manhattan’s actual job core, Quinn suggests subsidized bus shuttles or Citi Bike expansion. Never mind that a new subway station is opening in 11 months but half a mile away from the ferry terminal.

To garner support for this plan, Quinn points to the runaway success of the East River Ferries, but even that seems to be overstated. These ferries — with a fare structure separate and apart from the subway — have drawn 2.1 million riders in two years which averages out to just under 3000 a day. That’s essentially the equivalent of a whopping three peak-hour subway trains.

Ferries have limited utility in New York City because few people live near the water and even fewer work near the water. Without fare integration, ferries riders likely have a two-seat, two-fare ride to get to work, and even if Quinn can deliver a ride to Midtown that’s five minutes shorter than the current SI ferry to Whitehall, riders will still have to make the trek across Manhattan to get to work. Ferries may help out a handful of SI commuters in this instance, but they simply do not solve the city’s overarching mobility and transit expansion problems.

One project the mayoral candidates could focus on instead of ferries involves an abandoned right-of-way that stretches through numerous boroughs. Over the years, I’ve examined the Triboro RX in many contexts. Lee Sander discussed itdrew comparisons between the London’s new orbital line and the Triboro RX ROW. The line would carry around 75,000 passengers per day, and it’s one that could be implemented relatively easily.

Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities examined the Triboro RX idea yesterday and determined that it is a far more valuable long-term growth project than ferries. “I think there’s an awful lot of transportation projects that are unimportant that people are talking about,” Jeff Zupan of the Regional Plan Association said. “On the other side of the coin, here’s one that has all the makings of being a real winner.” The RPA has been a major proponent of the Triboro RX route for nearly two decades.

Jaffe had more:

Best of all, almost the entire right-of-way necessary for the route is already available. That means the Triboro Rx would end up costing much, much less than a completely new line project like the Second Avenue line. (To bring the X line to Yankee Stadium, as described in the 1996 plan, would require some new terrain, but Zupan now says a more viable option could be to avoid that hassle and end the line near Hunt’s Point instead.)

The sheer extent of the line, Census commute patterns for the outer boroughs, the general high rate of transit use among immigrants — all these elements point to Triboro Rx becoming a big hit…”There’s a number of things that suggest that the Triboro Rx’s time is closer to coming than it was in 1996,” says Zupan.

Despite all its promise, the Triboro Rx still has a number of obstacles in its path. The project could conflict with the proposed cross-harbor rail tunnel beloved by U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York. The Federal Railroad Administration has requirements for tracks shared by freight and passenger rail that initial plans might not meet. The MTA recently told Dana Rubinstein of Capital NY that it “never formally backed” the X line concept.

The stumbling blocks are formidable, and it’s much easier for a mayoral candidate to avoid land-based transit projects during campaigns. After all, some people won’t endorse a new train line running through their backyards or while adding a ferry route isn’t nearly as disruptive as building out a train line. Still, the Triboro RX line could happen if any politician were willing to take a risk, and the current plan can even snake just across the Narrows to deliver a subway connection to Staten Island. It’s a far more useful transit expansion designed to meet the long-term growth patterns of the city, and it’s not a boat.

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Bridging the MetroCard gap with the East River ferries

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For the past year, I’ve been a skeptic when it comes to the East River Ferry plan. The city is essentially forking over $9 million over three years for what I believed to be a novelty act. The city’s waterfront is too removed from population and job centers to provide an adequate route for most commuters. Furthermore, the ferries aren’t the speediest of vessels; the rides during the winter can be cold; and the fare system had nothing to do with the rest of the city’s MTA-run transit network.

After a mild winter that saw East River ferry ridership top expectations by over 100 percent — ridership last week cleared 19,000 vs. an estimated 8900 trips — the city is trying to solve that last problem. As DNA Info notes, officials are attempting to convince the MTA and ferry operators to find a way to make MetroCards work for ferry fare payments. Jill Colvin has more:

Advocates and council members said they believe the numbers would soar even higher if commuters could more easily transfer to buses and subways and pay their $4 fares with a simple MetroCard swipe, just like travelers on JFK’s AirTrain and the PATH trains.

Tim Sullivan, a senior policy advisor to Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, said the city is already exploring the MetroCard idea. “We’d like to see if we can apply that to the ferry system as well,” he said.

The MTA confimed it has been engaged in preliminary talks about integrating ferries with the rest of the city’s transit system, but it is not clear if it would work with unlimited MetroCards. Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, agreed that allowing customers to pay for ferries with the same MetroCard as they can use to pay for other forms of public transportation would be a major boost.

The key here though isn’t just allowing riders to use their MetroCards to pay; it also involves integrating ferry service as a part of the free transfer system so that riders can pay to use the ferry and get a subway transfer out of it or vice versa. Such an arrangement would solve the problem of a two-fare system currently in place today.

Of course, such a transfer solve only one problem facing the ferries. Right now, despite a $3 million annual subsidy and higher-than-expected ridership, the operators are still losing money. Billybey Ferry Company asked for a higher subsidy late last year, and the owners are not expecting the same ridership bump every winter. With a goal of reducing the subsidy to $0, the company may need to raise fares precipitously over the coming years.

So then can we integrate the ferries in with the MTA’s fare payment system? It needs to happen, but it’s not as easy as just asking nicely.

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