Home Public Transit Policy With ridership high, East River ferry seeks a higher subsidy

With ridership high, East River ferry seeks a higher subsidy

by Benjamin Kabak

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to invest precious city transportation subsidy dollars in East River Ferry service, I have been highly skeptical of the offering. The ferries seemed to target areas with limited populations that already had access to nearby subway stations without incorporating fare payments for the boats into the MetroCard system. Perhaps I was a bit premature in my assessment.

In today’s Times, Patrick McGeehan explores how the ferry service has been more successful than anticipated by both the city and its operators. He reports:

According to data supplied by city officials, nearly 350,000 people have paid to ride the ferries since late June, far more than the 134,000 they had projected. On weekdays, the number of riders has averaged 2,862, almost double the forecast of 1,488.

The weekday riders have not all been commuters, either. On Friday evening, two visitors from Zurich, Michael Luetscher and his 13-year-old daughter, Bignia, rode from Pier 11 near Wall Street to the Greenpoint apartment they had been staying in all week. They were returning from shopping and checking out the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, which Mr. Luetscher said was smaller and calmer than he had expected.

The big surprise for the ferry operator has come on the weekends, when ridership has averaged almost 4,500, more than six times the city’s projection. On Sunday, Oct. 9, the service carried about 6,500 passengers, said Paul Goodman, the chief executive of BillyBey, which operates under the flag of New York Waterway. “The enthusiasm that we’ve seen from these communities tells us that even though the city was in some manner hoping to encourage development along the waterfront, we’ve tapped into demand that was already there,” Mr. Goodman said.

There is, of course, a catch. With chillier autumn months nearly upon us, the ferry operators are concerned that their planned reduction in service will dissuade customers from sticking around, and they want the city to fork over more dough in an effort to subsidize increased service. Goodman has asked for a “more favorable financial arrangement” in exchange for more money, but city officials do not want to increase taxpayer expenditures in what Seth Pinsky of the Economic Development Corporation termed “an era of limited resources.”

Without an increase in subsidies, New York Waterway will, of course, have to raise its fares — which could lead to a decline in ridership anyway. It’s the great battle for public dollars that we see played out with the subways on a regular basis. Ultimately, ferry service has the potential to service a rather niche group of commuters who live in high-priced condos along the waterfront and want faster access to Lower Manhattan or Midtown. Without a deeper understanding of who rides the ferries and why, it’s tough to say the city should pony over more dollars.

For now, we know that summertime ferry service can be a success. What happens over the next six months will likely determine the fate of this three-year East River ferry experiment.

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al October 17, 2011 - 4:50 pm

The NY Waterway should get together with DOT and EDC for a pilot LNG fueled and marine hybid propulsion ferries to cut fuel costs. These boats run in stop and go function near existing LNG facilities (National Grid).

Kid Twist October 17, 2011 - 5:20 pm

This strikes me as backward. If it’s doing better than expected, it should need a smaller subsidy.

Larry Littlefield October 18, 2011 - 2:14 pm

My thought exactly. They made some profits. Good for them. They can decide whether to pour those profits back into the business by not cutting the winter schedule as much as expected.

Bike share is a better investment for ferries than additional subsidies. You still have to get to the waterfront on either end of your trip. Dropping off a bike on one side of the river after a short ride, and picking up another for another short ride on the other side of Manhattan, solves that.

Frank B. October 17, 2011 - 7:03 pm

Believe me, I’m just as surprised as you are that people are taking something of a ‘gimmick’ form of transportation.

Matt October 19, 2011 - 2:28 pm

Depends on your situation. One person’s “gimmick” is another person’s useful method of transportation.

For instance, the Roosevelt Island Tram is regarded as a novelty by many and a tourist attraction by others, but for me, it’s a normal part of my daily commute. It’s fast, efficient, and gets me where I need to go.

So I certainly don’t begrudge those who take the ferries, if they find that the ferry service meets their needs.

AlexB October 17, 2011 - 7:11 pm

Unless they go bankrupt, it’s probably required by the 3 year contract that they have to continue operating the ferry at the same fare, with the same subsidy, at the agreed upon schedule. They shouldn’t need more subsidy to keep the service running at the reduced service winter schedule. They are probably asking for more subsidy to keep the ferry running at the summer and fall schedule. Also, I doubt they can raise fares at will prior to the end of the contract. (Unlike the MTA’s relation to Albany, this funding stream is good for more than just a year).

On blogs like these, induced demand for highways is often discussed (negatively), and I think this is a great example of induced demand for transit. Once you get a service running at least every 20 minutes, it can attract a lot more riders than a 30 minute service. The same thing is true regarding greater speed and has been observed along the now superior M15, Bx12, and soon, the B44 and M34.

Alon Levy October 18, 2011 - 1:04 am

The title is wrong on so many levels.

Benjamin Kabak October 18, 2011 - 10:51 am

How so? You dispute the notion that ridership is high or that NY Waterways wants a greater subsidy?

Alon Levy October 18, 2011 - 1:30 pm

I don’t think it’s factually wrong. I just think there’s something deeply wrong with a company seeking more subsidies on the grounds that its ridership is high.

Chris October 18, 2011 - 2:34 pm

The argument would be wrong if it was simply ridership is high, therefore more subsidies are needed. But it’s that ridership is high, therefore more capacity is warranted, therefore the city should provide additional capacity subsidies. Which makes sense given that incremental capacity is money-losing and requires subsidy from general funds for pretty much every transportation provider in the country. Certainly the MTA demands subsidies for its capacity enhancements (the difference being that their subsidies are in the 11 figure range rather than 7).

Brooklyn Cat October 18, 2011 - 8:42 am

Its obvious you lack the facts the east river ferry has been the best thing to hit Brooklyn in a long time it has revitalized areas that people normally don’t travel to and brought life to a community in need of something different do your home work a little before publishing an article like this there’s a reason why the city is subsidizing the ferry i’m sure it costs a fortune to operate ferry’s let alone maintain them. As for raising fares I don’t think that will be happening as a tax payer like my self I would rather have the city invest in private transportation in which yields better quality and service as oppose to sinking more money into the MTA which just continues to PISS money away….take the ferry sometime and try to compare it to a subway you’ll see the difference

Al D October 18, 2011 - 9:11 am

Mayor Mike through his zoning changes, has spurred development along the waterfront that has resulted in the revitalization. The ferry is his reward to the people who bought into the developments there. These had already become bustling before the ferry boat.

Rather it is an end around to working with the MTA to integrate a service in that area and only serves to further fragment the transit infrastructre in NYC.

Al D October 18, 2011 - 9:04 am

At first blush, maybe the response is ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, but then if ridership is so high, wouldn’t the subsidy be cut or be unnecessary.

Al D October 18, 2011 - 9:07 am

apologies for the double post

Al D October 18, 2011 - 9:06 am

At first blush, maybe the response is ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, but then if ridership is so high, wouldn’t the subsidy be cut or be unnecessary.

I’d rather see the money spent on improving bus service in areas where it’s desperately needed instead of giving the rich who bought expensive residences in an area they knew was underserved by transit a government subsidized boat ride. Where are our priorities?

Caley October 18, 2011 - 12:16 pm

Except that it’s the so-called rich who are paying most of the taxes. Go back to your silly protest downtown.

Alon Levy October 18, 2011 - 1:31 pm

They have most of the income, too. Go back to your silly protests with “Keep the government out of Medicare” signs.

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