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.