Over the past few years, I’ve been harsh on politicians who have opted to trumpet proposals for ferry service as a cure-all for the city’s congested transit networks, and Mayor de Blasio’s so-called five-borough ferry service was no exception. He unveiled the idea during his State of the City speech last week, and I tore it apart on Thursday.
Simply put, the mayor’s proposal is an expensive way to subsidize travel for the few people who both live and work along the city’s waterfronts, and most of those people have chosen to live in luxury housing on the water front knowing commutes may take a little longer. With the exception of the Soundview and Red Hook ferries, the New Yorkers who need the most help — the middle and lower classes in transit-poor areas — are left out of the mayor’s idea, and it falls short as a solution.
But if we step back for a few minutes and ignore the way ferries cater to NIMBYs by leaving car lanes, parking spots and lengthy and disruptive heavy construction projects to the side, we may be able to save parts of the ferry proposal. It takes creativity and work, and it would take some rethinking of road space and transit prioritization. It also doesn’t overcome the fact that a ferry service that costs the same as a MetroCard swipe is subsidized to the tune of $15-$30 per rider, but it’s a start.
1. Integrated Fare. No matter how much money the city is willing to sink into the ferry system, they won’t get significant buy-in from residents who have to pay two fares. Those who are willing to use the ferry system to save time won’t be so keen on paying a $2.75 fare for the ferry and another for connecting modes of transit on the other side. This of course involves cooperation between the city and the MTA, and although the MTA has not embraced the ferry proposal or any integrated fare system, a free transfer between boat and bus or boat and subway would do wonders for ridership and mobility.
2. Integrated Surface Transit System. Ferries on their own aren’t that exciting if the way to get them involves walking and hoping that some other transit system serves the ferry terminal. Along with a ferry system, the mayor should have announced an extensive feeder bus system that delivers riders to ferries and then brings them to their destinations on the other end as well as expanded CitiBike access at ferry stations. The 34th St. Transitway and Vision42 remain the pinnacle of hopes dashed for river-to-river access, and both would do wonders for the mayor’s ferry system. Select Bus Service or BRT routes to and from ferry stops would be acceptable. CitiBikes, which admittedly implicate other issues of integrated costs and fare payment systems, should be readily available at ferry terminals as well. Instead, the mayor’s proposal didn’t even acknowledge that getting to a ferry terminal is just as important, if not more so, than the ferry system itself.
3. The Subsidies Are Too Damn High. As I mentioned, despite the attempts at saving the ferry system, someone needs to justify the subsidies. Considering who the likely riders are and where the routes run, the subsidies are even less palatable. Why must they be so high? What can the city do to bring them in line with at least express bus service, already the highest subsidized mode of transit within the five boroughs? Should we even accept high subsidies without further question?
Even trying to save the ferry proposal rings hollow simply because it’s not going to do much to solve the MTA’s capital budget woes, its constant signal problems or overcrowding on numerous lines. It’s not going to get high-speed service to neighborhoods that rely on local buses at best. It’s a nice thing to have for some people, but for most, it’s an afterthought and another proposal from another politician uninterested in tackling the harder questions relating to transit access and funding.