A few years ago, as part of a sponsorship/gimmick, baseball fans could take a ferry from Wall St. to Yankee Stadium. I happened to be working at the federal courthouse that summer, and one warm evening, my sister and I made the journey. It was fun and silly, albeit a little slow. The ferry dropped us off in the Bronx on the other side of the Metro-North station and the Major Deegan, a good 10-minute walk away from the stadium. We liked the boat ride but opted to take the 4 train from then on that year.
This story highlights a particular problem with ferry service to and from just about anywhere in the city. Because of choices our New York predecessors made in the mid-20th century, most destinations — housing, jobs, attractions — aren’t near the waterfront, and ferry service has to offer a far superior ride with added amenities to be better than the alternatives. This inconvenience of reality has not stopped our politicians from trumpeting ferries as some sort of amazing solution to our transit woes, and on Monday, the call came from the Bronx.
In March, just a few weeks before the East River Ferry operators had to raise their single-ride weekend fares to $6, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. penned a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio requesting a three-year trial for a ferry from Soundview in the Bronx with two stops on the Upper East Side and an ultimate Wall St. destination. Crain’s New York broke the story on Monday, and in Thornton McEnery’s reporting, we see more of the same old from our elected.
In a March 10 letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a copy of which has been obtained by Crain’s, Mr. Diaz requests ferry service between the Soundview area of the Bronx and Manhattan’s East Side. Citing the success of ferries from Brooklyn and Queens to Manhattan, and the geography of a coastline neighborhood that is not well served by public transit, Mr. Diaz’s letter requests that Mr. de Blasio endorse a three-year pilot program to test out the long-term viability of a new, permanent ferry route.
Mr. Diaz asks the mayor in the letter to acknowledge “the significant benefits ferry service between the Bronx and Manhattan would yield not just for my borough, but our entire city’s economy and our shared environment.”
The idea of a ferry between the southeast Bronx and midtown was not conjured up out of nowhere. The city saw a considerable expansion of ferry services during the Bloomberg administration, which also commissioned a study of the feasibility of ways to utilize the city’s waterways. The preliminary findings of that study were released late in 2013 and highlight Soundview as a promising origination point for a new ferry route. “It is felt that creating wider accessibility to the Bronx waterfront is an important policy consideration,” wrote the authors of the Citywide Ferry Study. “Additionally, there is opportunity for connecting Bronx residents to hospital and other job centers on the Upper East Side.”
I’ve touched upon the EDC report in the past, and it’s worth revisiting it to see if economic estimates from a group that loves to subsidize everything lines up with Diaz’s claim that ferry service would yield “significant benefits” for “our entire city’s economy.” Based on the EDC assessments of the Soundview ferry routes, it would cost at least $20 million to build ample ferry landings to support the service, and annual subsidies would run to approximately $6 million a year. The upper bounds of ridership by 2018 is approximately 1500 people per day — or the same number that can fit one one peak-hour subway train — and the subsidy per passenger could range from around $10-$24 depending upon the fare.
If anything, that’s a drag on New York’s economy, and not some panacea for for “our entire city’s economy and our shared environment.” Any bus route, for instance, that cost $10 per passenger to operate — let alone $24 — would have been eliminated years ago, and no one would have noticed. This is the fundamental problem with ferry service: It doesn’t solve any real problems for any real amount of people.
If we’re going to consider spending $20 million on upfront capital costs and $6 million on annual subsidies to improve transit, let’s figure out a way to spend it that will attract tens or hundreds of thousands of people a day rather than ones of thousands. Let’s figure out a way to talk this ferry energy and devote to real change. The fact that a politician is making this request and that it’s a serious one tells us all we need to know about the potential for transit growth in New York City today.