Archive for Public Transit Policy
Every now and then, an idea comes up regarding transit solutions in New York City that seems so out there in its creativity and so out of the box vis-a-vis the way transit operates here that you have to take a step back and appreciate it. Everyone got the ferry bug a few months ago; then we heard about waterfront light rail; and who could forget when John Catsimatidis threw out the idea for a monorail during his run for mayor? Today, we have gondolas.
Gondolas aren’t a particularly new idea for New York City. The Roosevelt Island Tramway delivers over 2.6 million passengers to one side or the other, and until it couldn’t keep up with maintenance obligations and passengers were stranded in the air for hours, the Bronx Zoo had the Skyfari. Now, thanks to Dan Levy, president of CityRealty, we have the East River Skyway, the latest and greatest in niche transportation for waterfront communities on either side of the East River.
The idea, Levy says, came to him while on a ski trip, and his plan involves three phases that will, he claims, cost around $75 to $125 million each. The gondola system, when completed, would span from south of the Brooklyn Bridge through Dumbo and the Navy Yards and north through Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City with connections to the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, the United Nations and the South Street Seaport.
In a certain sense, this plan gets to problems with the current transit set-up including overcrowded L trains, a need to serve the southern part of Roosevelt Island, especially with the Cornell development on tap and more capacity across the East River. On the other hand, the alignment is terrible in that it tracks subway lines such as the J/M/Z that are under capacity and mirrors preexisting ferry service. The materials tout a 3.5 minute ride from Williamsburg to Delancey St. at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, but that’s already something the M train can deliver and with better connections to points north. Even though, as CityRealty site 6sqft noted, “gondola stations can also be sited several avenues in,” that’s only the case because the Roosevelt Tram tracks the 59th St. Bridge. (The site also calls the Lexington Ave. IRT line “less taxed” than the L. Make of that what you will.)
Levy apparently drew his inspiration from international cities as well, something that should be applauded, but his examples leave much to be desired. He cites London’s Emirates Air Line as a comparison, but that’s a 10-minute ride geared toward tourists. Germany’s Koblenz Rheinseilbahn is a temporary structure that serves to move people to a cliff above the Rhein, and Chile’s Telerifico Bicentario remains in the planning stages. Levy’s would be among the most complex in the world and relatively long as well.
As to ridership, he predicts around 5000 per hour — which is the equivalent of about three peak-hour subway trains. It’s a reasonably decent ridership, but it’s also one limited by geographic constraints. As with ferries, these gondolas get people from one coast to another, but not from where they live to where they work. Sure, some people live on the Williamsburg waterfront and work near Wall Street, but many would still need to ride a crowded subway. Thus, the problem for which Levy is trying to solve remains. Furthermore, these are issues that could be solved with dedicated bus lanes across the city’s bridges or better bike infrastructure. That’s the realistic conversation we should be having.
Ultimately, this is a fanciful idea, but one that’s more pie-in-the-sky than anything else. It can move the conversation though about ways to solve transit capacity issues, and if someone wants to build it with private funding, no one other than NIMBYs with waterfront views will raise much of a stink. (The insurance costs for operating these types of systems though make them cost prohibitive and nearly impossible to run at a profit.) For now, it’s the shiny new toy.
As any regular SAS reader well knows by now, I have very little tolerance for the current love affair New York’s politicians have with ferries. To me, it reeks of a fetish that helps these elected officials avoid tough financial decisions and combative NIMBYs without actually solving the region’s mobility problems. The current ferry routes are the best ones available, and everything else suffers from low ridership, diminishing returns and either high fares or higher subsidies.
Yet, ferries continue to be the Next Big Thing, and on Wednesday, officials were so excited to call for more ferry service that they ran aground on one. Dana Rubinstein broke the story:
A Seastreak ferry ran aground in Jamaica Bay this afternoon, forcing the fire department to remove all 29 passengers, none of whom were injured, according to an FDNY spokesman and news reports. The ferry was not part of the regular Rockaways service, but was a private ride organized by a local ferry advocate to explore ways of expanding service, possibly to JFK Airport.
The ferry ride included, among others, representatives from the offices of Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder and Queens borough president Melinda Katz.”There was no big thump,” said Goldfeder, who wasn’t on the boat, but spoke to people who were. He said passengers didn’t even realize they were stuck until they tried moving. Goldfeder said the incident shouldn’t be used to paint ferry service as unreliable or prone to delays. “For every minor ferry incident, you can probably locate 50 subway delays,” Goldfeder said. “It’s just so inconsequential.”
The incident will not impact ferry service to the Rockaways, which carries about 400 people daily, according to Kate Blumm, a spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
Now, there’s a lot going on here. First, Goldfeder’s right in one sense, but on the other hand, we’re talking about 400 people. For every one person who rides the ferry to and from the Rockaways, 15,000 ride the subway, and the cops don’t send out rescue squads every time a train is delayed due to a signal problem. We’ll come back to that 400 figure in a minute. In the meantime, don’t think too hard about how a ferry to JFK would work, where it would dock that would be at all convenient to suitcase-laden passengers, or why we need boats to the airport in the first place. You’ll only give yourself a headache.
In response to Wednesday’s incident, Queens’ politicians quickly tried to protect their ferry advocacy. “Today’s incident does not take away from the fact that is imperative that ferry service between Manhattan and Rockaways be made permanent,” Borough President Melinda Katz said. “Permanent ferry service would do more to promote economic development in the Rockaways than just about anything else that has been proposed in recent history. It is essential that the Rockaway ferry be made into a permanent mode of transportation.”
The emphasis is mine, and I’d like you to mull on her statement for a bit. The Borough President of Queens believes that a ferry with 400 daily passengers is the biggest thing to hit Queens since sliced bread (or, perhaps, the 63rd Street Connector). As a point of comparison, on a typical weekday, an average of 400 passengers per hour use the BMT Brighton line station at 7th Ave. near Prospect Heights and Park Slope. It’s certainly not promoting economic development in the way Katz’s talks.
Meanwhile, there is something that reaches toward the Rockaways that could create more economic development not just for the Rockaways but for much of Queens, and that is of course the Rockaway Beach Branch, a dedicated rail right of way with a connection through Queens to the IND Queensboro line. That would be worthy of a concerted political effort. But here we are, trumpeting a ferry that carries 400 of the Rockaways 130,000 people as a success. How our standards have fallen.
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.
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.
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.
As transit agencies look to expand and grow, one of the biggest obstacles is seemingly the environmental review process. Federal and state governments mandate lengthy and costly review processes that are supposed to find no impact. Never mind that the purpose of a project could be, say, a brand new subway line designed to improve environmental conditions; these requirements stand.
Take, for example, the Second Ave. Subway. After what was then 70 years of planning and some aborted construction efforts, the MTA still had to prepare a scoping document, a draft environmental impact statement, a supplemental statement and a final environmental impact statement before the groundbreaking. When the agency proposed shifting some entrances at 72nd and 86th Sts., the agency had to prepare yet another document to show no impact. As these documents are now over a decade old in certain cases, the MTA may have to do some of this all over again for future phases of the subway construction project.
Simple subway extensions aren’t the only projects suffering under the onus of environmental review. In The Times today, while coverage of the snow dominates headlines, Sam Roberts tackles the problem of environmental review in the context of the Bayonne Bridge project. This should be a simple effort to raise a bridge in its existing footprint to allow larger container boats into the New York Harbor, but the review process has been a disaster. Roberts writes of the history of the project after it was proposed in 2009:
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey first spent more than six months importuning various federal offices to serve as the lead agency for an environmental review. The law is vague about which agency is responsible. The Coast Guard finally agreed.
Since then, the Port Authority’s “fast-track” approach to a project that will not alter the bridge’s footprint has generated more than 5,000 pages of federally mandated archaeological, traffic, fish habitat, soil, pollution and economic reports that have cost over $2 million. A historical survey of every building within two miles of each end of the bridge alone cost $600,000 — even though none would be affected by the project.
After four years of work, the environmental assessment was issued in May and took into consideration comments from 307 organizations or individuals. The report invoked 207 acronyms, including M.B.T.A. (Migratory Bird Treaty Act) and N.L.R. (No Longer Regulated). Fifty-five federal, state and local agencies were consulted and 47 permits were required from 19 of them. Fifty Indian tribes from as far away as Oklahoma were invited to weigh in on whether the project impinged on native ground that touches the steel-arch bridge’s foundation.
That’s just the beginning as Roberts airs out a full array of criticism against environmental review laws. “Environmental review has evolved into an academic exercise like a game of who can find the most complications,” Philip K. Howard, a lawyer concerned with onerous government regulations, said. “The Balkanization of authority among different agencies and levels of government creates a dynamic of buck-passing.”
Meanwhile, as the bridge is being raised to increase port capacity and reduce the number of ships needed to bring in the same amount of cargo, New Jersey groups believe that more containers will lead to more trucks carting more goods to their final destinations. Lawsuits are ongoing, but Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye seems fed up with it all. “We’re not proposing to build a nuclear plant on a pristine mountain lake,” he said to The Times. “We’re not building a bridge, we’re not knocking a bridge down, we don’t think there’ll be any increase in vehicular traffic. The environmental impact is more energy-efficient ships. They will emit less schmutz per container and per pair of Nikes.”
So what’s the solution? On the one hand, the review process is important in that it requires agencies to set forth detailed descriptions of their plans, and it forces government entities to involve the community to a certain degree in planning. But it’s an absurd process that needs to be streamlined and overhauled. The Bayonne Bridge and Second Ave. Subway are just two in a long list of voluminous environmental reviews that drive up costs and slow down construction. If enough agency heads sound off, as Foye did, maybe things can begin to change.
A bit of late-breaking news before 2014 arrives: Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has named Polly Trottenberg as his Department of Transportation commissioner. Trottenberg, a veteran of the Obama administration and a former staffer for Senators Moynihan and Schumer, will succeed Janette Sadik-Khan, and in the eyes of pedestrian safety and transit advocates, will have big shoes to fill. According to a release from de Blasio, Trottenberg will oversee his transportation agenda which will seek to “expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.”
Streetsblog runs down Trottenberg’s credentials, and both Transportation Alternatives and the Straphangers have voiced their approvals this afternoon. Trottenberg sounded the right tones too in her statement but spoke earlier of making the pedestrian plaza planning process “more collaborative with local communities.” (For what it’s worth, the pedestrian plaza planning process has been far more collaborative than just about anything else DOT has done in decades. Slowing it down with more meetings would be counter-productive.)
Despite that hiccup, I think this is a solid appointment by de Blasio, and I’ll give Trottenberg the last word. “One life lost on our streets is too many. We are committed to the maxim that safety— for everyone who uses the roads, including pedestrians and cyclists —is our top priority,” she said in a statement. “From improving our roads, bridges and waterways to better serve our citizens and businesses, to connecting New Yorkers to jobs and opportunities through improved high-speed bus service, to expanding biking across the five boroughs, we can have a transportation system that is safe, efficient and accessible to all.”
Polly Trottenberg, current Under Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, will serve as the Transportation Commissioner, executing Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s ambitious agenda to expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.
As a further sign of some skewed priorities, as we enter 2014, pre-tax mass transit benefits will drop from $245 per month to $130 while parking subsidies will increase to $250 a month. The change comes on the heels of Congressional inaction in Washington, D.C. Andrew Grossman of The Journal runs down why the subsidy is dropping precipitously, and needless to say, no one who relies on mass transit is too happy about this change.
Even if Congress reauthorizes the $245 tax break, it is unlikely that the benefits will apply retroactively as administering such a change would be quite complicated. So while subway riders who need only a monthly MetroCard escape with their full subsidy in tact, anyone who is, say, a monthly commuter from Zones 4 or on beyond on Metro-North won’t have even half the cost of their passes covered by pre-tax deductions.
But fear not; Chuck Schumer is on it. “Mass transit is the lifeblood of the New York area, and this provision helps keep it flowing and affordable. Passing it will be a top priority in the New Year,” the state’s senior senator said. Happy New Year, indeed.
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?
Over the past few days, amidst an MTA crisis, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has again grabbed the mic to be the public face of an agency in trouble. This follows a trend established during Superstorm Sandy and one we’ve seen over the first few years of Cuomo’s tenure. He’ll issue the press releases and be on the air when someone needs to take charge, but he otherwise hasn’t embraced transit at all.
A telling moment came on Monday morning, in fact, when Cuomo was making the rounds on the local TV and cable news morning shows. One anchor asked Cuomo when he last took the train, and Cuomo, who has lived in Westchester for years and worked in an office the city as Attorney General, declined to answer. It was essentially a tacit admission that Cuomo hasn’t take the train in years. He should be ashamed. He’s the governor of the most transit-rich state in the country, and millions of his constituents depend upon subways, the LIRR and Metro-North every day. I don’t expect him to ride the 6 every day as Bloomberg does, but a trip now and then on a train would do him good.
Cuomo’s apathy, if not, as in the case of the Tappan Zee, outright hostility, does not bode well for anywhere else in the country, and following on the governor’s dismissal of a traffic pricing plan, that’s the argue Alex Pareene pursues in a piece at Salon. “The congestion pricing argument,” Pareene writes, “has always taken place, rhetorically, in a bizarre alternate universe where everyone drives, and where every citizen deserves to be able to drive without bearing anything close to the cost of that driving on the city’s infrastructure and atmosphere.”
He extends this discussion to the general approach to transit in the area:
Cuomo isn’t at all unusual. In New York state, as in the country as a whole, more resources continue to be spent on drivers and roads than buses and trains. One transit blogger has calculated that, according to how Albany allocates transportation money, “every driver is worth as much as 4.5 transit riders.” And while Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has a generally very good record on transit, there’s always been a strange tension between Bloomberg’s pedestrian and bicycle-friendly Department of Transportation and his NYPD, which has a bizarrely antagonistic relationship with bicyclists and which rarely — as in almost never — prosecutes reckless driving, speeding, or accidents leading to the death of pedestrians.
This should be the most transit-friendly government in the country. A majority of New York citizens rely on public transit for their livelihoods. The city and state are run by Democrats, many of them among the most liberal in the nation. Our incoming mayor, Bill de Blasio, ran as a left-wing populist. But incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio is a driver. Andrew Cuomo has been a driver, or had drivers, his entire life. There are certain richer Manhattanites, accustomed to walking, for whom anti-car policies improve their quality of life, but for most of the political class, everyone they know and interact with owns a car. Finding a steady and sufficient revenue source for the local transit system, one that can’t be raided for other purposes and that doesn’t rely too heavily on burdening its users with hefty fare increases, should be an urgent priority for local politicians, but most of them simply don’t care.
We already have a political system in this country that, nationally, heavily favors the interests of the rural and the suburban over the urban. Many state legislatures have similar biases. But when, even in New York, politicians ignore transit, because they don’t know or interact with or receive checks from people who rely on it every day, there’s almost no hope for cheap, efficient mass transit options anywhere.
Pareene’s last observation — that New York politicians “don’t know or interact with or receive checks from people” whose lives are dependent on transit — is a stunning one. In a city in which everyone takes and needs transit, those who fight for the system aren’t elected to City Hall or Albany. There are always a few bright spots, those legislators who understand the need, but they are few and far between.
So what’s the answer to this question? Is there one? The Straphangers Campaign has been fighting for 30 years; the Riders Alliance has been around for two. Still, there’s no indication that de Blasio will be better than Cuomo or that either will make the hard choices to fund transit. Even in a crisis three or four years ago, politicians couldn’t step up, and Eliot Spitzer, a big transit champion, self-destructed. So here we are in a city trying to find a way to fund transit in a sustainable way and continuing to face political road blocks. The fight will go on.