For better or worse, Staten Island has garnered a lot of ink lately. Gov. Cuomo’s toll giveaway garnered an intense reaction from New York politicians and media commentators alike. But for all the negative attention the toll measure has garnered, other forces are pushing Staten Island transit in a better direction all thanks to a giant Ferris wheel and an outlet mall.
As you may recall, toward the end of the Bloomberg Administration, the mayor, Staten Island politicians and some high-powered real estate folks got together on the New York equivalent to the London Eye. This giant Ferris wheel will sit above the St. George Terminal and abut a new outlet center. This being Staten Island, there will be more parking than any transit advocate would like to see, but the potential for these new attractions is also drawing ferry operators.
In a big piece in this week’s Crain’s New York, Lisa Fickenscher explores potential Staten Island growth fueled by better ferry service. The underlying premise is still shaky. We don’t know if the Ferris wheel or mall will actually become a reality or if 6 million people will make the long trek across the harbor to see these attractions. But relying on the Field of Dreams mantra, ferry operators believe that if you build it, they will come.
If the developers of those megaprojects are right, and some 6 million annual visitors begin flocking to sleepy Staten Island in two years – when the attractions are expected to be completed – every major ferry company in the city, including New York Water Taxi, BillyBey Ferry Co., Statue Cruises and Seastreak, will be dropping off riders at a dock just a short distance from the St. George Terminal, where the Staten Island Ferry lands.
All those businesses are currently in negotiations with the New York Wheel and BFC Partners, which is developing the outlet center, evaluating whether they need to purchase more boats and how much they should charge to transport tourists from points in midtown Manhattan, New Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens directly to the North Shore of Staten Island. There are no regulatory impediments standing in the way of expanded service. The city is seeking a developer to build and operate a new ferry landing…
The ferry operators’ main competition would not be each other but the Staten Island Ferry, which transports 20 million people a year to the borough on nine boats that operate seven days a week – and, most important, offers a free ride. “The big unknown is how many people will use the Staten Island Ferry,” said [Statue Cruises' Michael] Burke. “I think a majority will go on the free boat.”
To keep the cost competitive with the free option, [Paul] Goodman of BillyBey said that subsidies either from the developers or from the city may be necessary. That could allow the boats to also cater to Staten Island commuters willing to pay a little more for direct service to midtown, for example. The city has already indicated that it will not subsidize new ferry service to St. George.
It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how Staten Island reacts to a potential invasion of tourists. At least the hordes of crowds will be confined to the St. George area, but the new attractions could create traffic problems across the Outerbridge Crossing or the Goethals, Bayonne or Verrazano Bridge. Meanwhile, the free Staten Island ferries will fill up with day travelers while regular commuters could find their rides far less comfortable. For a borough that has battled the tensions of development for decades, what lies in store could create some deep fissures.
More important though is the added ferry service. Can more ferries at St. George solve Staten Island’s transit problems? Can the city figure out a way to encourage ferries to eye alternate landings throughout Staten Island to better serve the borough’s commuting population? These aren’t questions we can answer now, but they are questions that deserve more thought and consideration before the New York Wheel and outlet mall open in 2016. Staten Island deserves it.