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.