Home Public Transit Policy Bridging the MetroCard gap with the East River ferries

Bridging the MetroCard gap with the East River ferries

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Marc Shepherd April 26, 2012 - 2:11 pm

The problem with ferries is NOT their distance from population and job centers, but their distance from transit. Most ferry-riders would be looking at a 5-leg trip:

1) Home to bus
2) Bus to waterfront
3) Ferry
4) Bus to subway (or another bus)
5) Bus to work

Most people would regard this as a very undesirable travel pattern (and this assumes buses to the fairy terminals exist). If there were subway stations at the ferry terminals, it would be a very different proposition.

Christopher April 26, 2012 - 4:09 pm

So the problem IS that their distance from population and job centers. Transit generally runs where population and job centers are. That being said. It all depends now, doesn’t it? Let’s say you live in Red Hook and work on Wall Street. (Hey it could happen!) Ferries are the closet thing you’ve got. And I think that’s sort of the point. It’s like when NYC built subways in the middle of fields in hopes of attracting development. If you are going to attract businesses and residents to the water front you have to give them their own transportation network … like one on water. So build the ferries and the people will follow.

AG May 3, 2012 - 7:49 pm

anyone who owns a boat or knows someone who has one knows that running them is VERY costly. Honestly – I think ferries should cost more… and they really only make sense in areas where people have the extra income… such as in developments with luxury housing on the waterfront. The iconic Staten Island ferry wouldn’t work everywhere for instance.

Adirondacker12800 April 26, 2012 - 3:20 pm

19,000 trips a day comes out to roughly 18,000,000 a year which means the subsidy is 50 cents a ride. Depending on how much BillyBey is asking for additional subsidy you are looking at the fare rising to what? 5 bucks?

Chris April 26, 2012 - 4:25 pm

It’s 19,000/week, not per day… so the per trip subsidy is more like $3.50 a ride.

J b April 26, 2012 - 8:38 pm

As a PATH rider I’d live to get that free transfer you’re willing to offer ferry riders.

AlexB April 27, 2012 - 11:04 am

If you ride an express bus, you have to buy an extra expensive weekly metrocard. Don’t see why the same can’t be used for the ferries. It’s basically the same thing. Otherwise, they’d have to seriously increase the subsidy if you want to use regular metrocards. Pretty much every transportation mode has a subsidy of some sort, so not sure why making the ferries break even or earn a profit is such a priority for everyone.

David April 30, 2012 - 11:34 am

That’s a very legitimate request, which I’d gladly pay for.
I personally ride it from So. Williamsburg to DUMBO, and it offers transit where only an infrequent B62 was available, and overall greatly shortens my commute.

Lhota not so keen on the ferry fare idea :: Second Ave. Sagas April 27, 2012 - 5:54 pm

[…] I wrote about the need to better integrate the East River ferries with the rest of the city’s MTA-run transportation network. Today, MTA head Joe Lhota […]

Kevin P. April 27, 2012 - 6:25 pm

A Bronx cheer goes out to DNAinfo for regularly pulling down 2-day-old articles. Link rot is bad.

Brooklyn 11211 › Ferry Operator Wants to Accept Metrocards April 27, 2012 - 10:31 pm

[…] Metrocards, so the idea is not that far fetched. But the real innovation would be for the ferry to accept Metrocard transfers – i.e., eliminating the two-fare structure that most commuters using the ferry face (by the […]


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