Home Public Transit Policy Coming soon, for better or worse: a $325 million ferry system

Coming soon, for better or worse: a $325 million ferry system

by Benjamin Kabak

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, it’s no surprise that I don’t have a particularly high view of ferries as a solution to New York City’s mobility issues. They’re very expensive to operate and subsidize and require a two-fare system, serve only those New Yorkers — generally wealthier and with more transit options — who live and work near the water, and don’t carry enough passengers. Last year, I wrote about my general disillusionment with ferries and the flaws in the mayor’s ferry plan while offering a proposal to fix the plan. Still, the so-called five-borough plan has moved on, none the better for time and feedback.

In today’s paper, The New York Times does a deep dive on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ferry proposal, and Patrick McGeehan’s piece is a doozy. The city is sinking $325 million into the ferry service, outside of annual operating subsidies; expects just 4.5 million riders per year; and is willing to sell off the assets if the ferry service flounders. It’s an uber-expensive Hail Mary, and it’s not hard to dwell on how $325 million in direct contributions could go a long way toward a real solution for increased access to transit.

What follows are some choice passages from McGeehan’s article:

The city has already spent $6 million on four commuter boats in 2016 and could own more than 30 in a few years. Mr. de Blasio also plans to spend at least $85 million to create 13 additional landings for the ferries and a home port for them at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But the mayor has raised the stakes in ways few other places have by pledging that a ferry ride would cost the same as subway fare, $2.75. That is a departure from San Francisco; Sydney, Australia; and other cities where extensive commuter-ferry systems have long operated. They tend to charge more to ride ferries than buses or trains, and their ferry fares are based on the length of the trip. The one-fare plan fits with the liberal agenda of Mr. de Blasio, who has championed “transit equity” for all New Yorkers. To fulfill the mayor’s promise, the city will have to contribute a substantial operating subsidy, a commitment that several of his predecessors were unwilling to make….

City officials have been leaning on Hornblower Cruises and Events, the San Francisco-based company they chose in March to operate the service, to order the boats it will need. Hornblower, which runs cruises to the Statue of Liberty, has settled on a design for 149-passenger boats and is negotiating with a few boatyards around the country to build 18 of them, at a cost of nearly $4 million each…Maria Torres-Springer, the president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said Hornblower was chosen primarily for its experience in starting ferry services around the country, as well as on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The company, however, has limited experience with helping commuters get to and from work every day, though city officials said that did not weigh heavily against it…

Mr. de Blasio announced that the home port for the expanded service would be a pier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But that pier is so dilapidated that it may not be rebuilt before 2018, Ms. Glen said. If the city-owned service starts next summer, as scheduled, the home port is likely to be in New Jersey at first, Ms. Glen said. The city’s ferry system, however, will not serve New Jersey…Hornblower will need nine boats to cover the three new routes, none of which it has now. Mike Anderson, former chief executive of Washington State Ferries, which runs a large fleet of ferries in the Seattle area, said that to have that many boats built would normally take a few years…

The city estimates that it will cost about $70 million to have 18 ferries built. Once they are done, the city plans to buy them from Hornblower, which will operate them for six years, with a possibility of renewing the contract for an additional five years. Ms. Glen said the city was employing “good, smart economics” in deciding to own the boats. “If, for some reason, Hornblower doesn’t perform,” she said, the city would either find another operator or run the system itself, as it does for the Staten Island Ferry. And, she added, “even if the service weren’t to be that successful, the city will have hard assets” that it could sell to recoup some of its investment.

By itself, none of these anecdotes are enough to sink the ferry plan, and city officials continue to insist to me that their numbers are rigorous enough to support the extremely high subsidies and capital costs considering even their optimistic, but still low, ridership projections. Yet, it seems as though the city is flying by the seat of their pants. They picked a company many say doesn’t have the right kind of experience for a daily ferry service or the boats to support the plans, and the likelihood of delay is growing.

As I’ve written in the past, too, it’s not clear who this plan and the subsidies benefit. The neighborhoods along the waterfront in Queens and Brooklyn south of Astoria are all wealthy with other transit options. The Astoria dock serves some middle class housing, but the two-fare system is a barrier for many who have to take a subway or bus to get to work on the other end of their boat rides. The Brooklyn Army Terminal is far from everywhere other than Industry City, and the Bay Ridge stop isn’t expected to have high ridership.

So we the taxpayers of New York City are left footing the bill for a bunch of boats that fit 149 people — fewer than one subway car — and may not serve many in particularly great need of more transit. Who, after all, is going to take a subway or bus to a boat and pay two fares for the privilege? The $325 million the city is so eager to spend could go a long way toward subsidizing transit rides for low-income New Yorkers, prioritizing and improving bus service throughout the city or even funding parts of construction of new subway lines (the real game-changers). But we’re getting boats. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see how transformative they’ll be no matter how the mayor’s office defends this plan.

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Roger June 16, 2016 - 12:20 am

Why no E 90 street to astoria?

Guest June 16, 2016 - 7:40 pm

Or Queens/Bronx.

Roxie June 16, 2016 - 12:42 am

who…do they think is going to use the ferry from soundview, exactly? especially if it’s not integrated into metrocard/whatever replaces metrocard? soundview is a low-income area… what it needs is a subway line or much easier access to one, not a ferry

unless by soundview they mean its coming out of ferry point park or whatever, where trump has his golf course, in which case, i guess theyre hoping some rich people will use the ferry instead of just driving their cars??
i just earnestly can’t wrap my head around it. the whole plan is so asinine, like from beginning to end

Guest June 16, 2016 - 7:41 pm

The ferry is going to be located off Soundview Avenue, not the Soundview community (which is located around the Bruckner Expressway/Bronx River Pkwy). Clason Point/Harding Park is a working class area with a median income close to the city average.

AG June 16, 2016 - 11:52 pm

Well it’s not really Soundview… It’s Clason Point/Harding Park. Neither of which are really “poor”. That said – there should be another stop in Throggs Neck/Ferry Point because those people won’t be able to drive and park at the “Soundview” ferry because there is no parking. Actually – hundreds of condos -townhouses and detached two family homeswere built right there. All of those people own cars. There is not parking.

Larry Littlefield June 16, 2016 - 6:46 am

Ultimately, this way my objection to all the money poured into Governor’s Island at a time so many city parks are in disrepair.

But it is also a reason to object to things such as solar panels, which I have. Better off people tend to take advantage of things like this.

Sometimes early investment like this pays off, reducing subsidies. It has for solar.

Is there any reason to believe ferry ridership will soar above the 4.5 million as development proceeds?

Brandon June 16, 2016 - 6:50 am

Ferries are the new monorail for politicos who don’t really care about transportation planning. A lot more people already ride bikes than ride ferries in NYC and I can only imagine how much more cycling $325 million could buy us.

Bryan June 16, 2016 - 7:33 am

Ferries are attractive as a tourist attraction.

Eric June 16, 2016 - 2:42 pm

The Staten Island ferry is a tourist attraction. No tourist is going to take the ferry to Soundville. Very few tourists are going to take any ferry more than once.

eo June 16, 2016 - 8:40 am

This is a complete waste of money. What are the chances that the next mayor will cancel it? I bet you they are better than 1 in 50. If the city hopes to offload the system on the MTA at a future date, I do not see that happening either – the MTA does not need another money losing mode and will fight it teeth and nail. So the reality is that the city is spending $325 million on waste. The boats will be sold cheaply to private operators elsewhere in the country, even abroad, in about 10 years and the new docks will be left to rust for another 50 years.

While the new subways are not cheap, they carry a lot more people. Does anyone have capital expenditure per expected rider for this and the Second Avenue for apples to apples comparison? Also the annual operational subsidy per expected rider?

AMH June 16, 2016 - 11:54 am

Capital cost per projected rider may be comparable to subway (ferries have very low capital costs) but operating costs will be much, much higher.

LLQBTT June 16, 2016 - 9:05 am

what a waste

Rob June 16, 2016 - 9:16 am

And some people say Republicans are stupid?

Michael Dawkins June 16, 2016 - 9:35 am

I agree that this is a waste of money but realistically $325 million is not nearly enough to make any substantial improvement in the transit system. I feel like they need to seriously look at reactivating existing railways like the LIRR to LIC or at least open part of the Triboro RX. I recently went to Gov’s Island and the loading and unloading / docking takes a really long time. I cant imagine a lot of people cramming on a ferry instead of taking the train.

Ralfff June 16, 2016 - 2:19 pm

As Ben said, that money would buy traffic light priority for way more buses, actually. The money could be spent on dedicated bus lanes that address almost all these places. Soundview, in some ideal world where money is not an issue, would be a good candidate because it is far and has an inland waterway I believe (?). The Rockaway Beach ferry would be obviated by better, faster subway service than the pathetic situation we have and the city should not be paying to cover for the MTA where the MTA has decided to not use their infrastructure correctly. All the other locations are straight-up developer subsidies.

Also, based on my experience on the SI ferry and the maritime industry, I suspect that once the “security consultants” get a whiff of this, they’ll be in the offices of the “terrorism”-obsessed pants-pissers in our city and state governments and drive the price of this up by more than a factor of two. Watch for an article in the Daily News headlined something like “New Boats Could Be Bombs, Say Experts” and a surprise cost overrun announcement a few weeks later.

Stephen June 16, 2016 - 9:52 pm

Your point about the ‘security consultants’ gets a +1 from me.

mister June 17, 2016 - 7:58 am

What would you do to improve Rockaways subway service?

Ralfff June 17, 2016 - 2:54 pm

Medium-term, connect to Rockaway Beach Blvd line for full-time service to both Rockaway branches. Short term, every arriving/departing A to Broad Channel should be paired with a shuttle to the extent feasible. Also arriving at Rockaway Beach is excruciatingly slow and should be sped up by a factor of three.

R2 June 16, 2016 - 9:48 am

A ferry bad idea, if I say so myself.

Stephen Bauman June 16, 2016 - 10:03 am

Ferryboat captains are less likely to run over pedestrians and bicyclists than bus drivers are.

Jonathan R June 16, 2016 - 10:50 am

Don’t forget 10 deceased victims of October 2003 SI Ferry crash.

SEAN June 16, 2016 - 10:27 am

Are we talking about ferrys or faries. I ask – you decide.

AMH June 16, 2016 - 11:55 am

Neither one of those is a real word!

Eric June 16, 2016 - 2:44 pm

Actually, neither one is. It should be “ferries” and “fairies”.

JJJ June 16, 2016 - 10:33 am

On one hand, $325 million sure is a lot.

On the other hand, South Ferry cost $530 million and was in use for a grand total of 3 years.

The biggest folly is not providing a NJ-Brooklyn route, which would actually be useful, as theres no good transit service for that now, especially because PATH WTC was built as a dead-end.

Eric June 16, 2016 - 2:49 pm

NY-Brooklyn as in Hoboken-Pier 5? That might actually be competitive with PATH+subway…

Eric June 16, 2016 - 2:49 pm

Of course it is not solely within NYC…

Sam Goetz June 16, 2016 - 11:56 am

Honest question : what can De Blasio do without any power to influence the MTA? At this point it seems obvious to me the guy has given up on influencing that agency and is searching for projects he can do without them or the state.

I don’t think either the ferries or street cars are going to make a big difference in the city, but I’m also generally curious what you think he should be doing for transit in the city if he can’t touch any of the state agencies (which definitely seems how it’s going with Cuomo).

Ralfff June 16, 2016 - 2:22 pm

Bus. Traffic. Light. Priority.

That and theoretically he could direct the cops to relentlessly punish anyone blocking a bus, if he had any control over them.

Nathanael June 18, 2016 - 2:22 am

De Blasio could personally arrest Bratton for obstruction of justice. He has more power than he realizes he has.

AG June 18, 2016 - 10:00 am

No – he’s politically impotent… And with all the potential scandals he’s dealing with – he wouldn’t be that dumb.

Wanderer June 16, 2016 - 12:46 pm

4.5 million riders might sound like a lot to uninformed people. Does the Mayor and his staff understand that the subways and buses are expected to carry 2.4 billion trips this year? So 4.5 million would represent less than 2/10 of 1% of the system ridership.

Ralfff June 16, 2016 - 2:29 pm

The Staten Island Ferry carried on the order of 22 million in 2012 according to Gothamist, and the 4.5 M figure presumably is not over and above the existing East River Ferries, so even not counting the New Jersey ferries this is hardly some transit mode revolution. Also, as the Streetsblog Twitter account pointed out, the Bx11, the 40th ranked bus route for ridership, carried 4.5 million or so last year.

Jeff June 16, 2016 - 4:33 pm

It’s the exact same amount as the SIR carries per year, and the MTA spends quite a bit maintaining that system.

The HBLR gets about twice that and received a $2.2 billion investment.

This sounds little compared to the NYC Subway, but its really not that bad at all when compared to other capital investments out there.

Jeff June 16, 2016 - 4:39 pm

Also – the JFK Airtrain gets 6.5 million riders per year and received a $1.9 billion investment.

So really, you just can’t compare new projects with the overall ridership of the NYC Subway, which had more than a hundred years of continued investment and already covers the locations in the city where the highest ridership can be achieved.

Adirondacker12800 June 16, 2016 - 4:54 pm

Airport people movers usually get built to remove shuttle buses from the terminals. It’s why Airtrain was built at JFK and EWR. The shuttle bus to the train station was one of the buses that got eliminated.

Jeff June 16, 2016 - 9:19 pm

That’s besides the point though. The point is that $325 million isn’t that bad of a sum to spend for 4.5 million people compared to other similar projects.

John June 17, 2016 - 12:36 am

4.5M to Jamaica and Howard beach plus another 10M around the terminals, to long term parking and the rental car facility. Airport trains are built with money that can only be used on airport property. You can’t compare the two

Jeff June 17, 2016 - 6:27 am

I disagree that you can’t compare the two. Airport trains are still funded by operations and taxes, no different than any other infrastructure project.

And I alluded to both SIR and HBLR as well. And heck, even projects like the 7 line extension, and SAS dreamwanks like the Rockaway Branch extension or Triboro RX would see similar magnitude of riders and cost significantly more.

Jeff June 17, 2016 - 6:35 am

And in regards to the SIR, the MTA is spending $372 million in upgrades and railcars for the next capital plan. The system serves exactly 4.5 million riders per year and is seeing about the same investment for a routine refresh.

The last capital plan had $158 million allocated to it too, so it’s not just a one time thing either.

John June 17, 2016 - 7:44 pm

Airport trains are funded by taxes paid by airline passengers. They can not be used off airport projects and the PFC fund has a very large surplus. It is free money.

mister June 16, 2016 - 1:34 pm

Integrated, inter-modal networks. That’s what is needed for an efficient, well used, transit system. This just doesn’t fit the bill. And at an average of 12,000 people per day, the whole system is moving as many people as a middle of the pack bus line. The B52, Bx7, M23, and Q20 all carry about this many riders every day. Individually.

BQX is supposed to be built to address a lack of access to mass transit at the waterfront. This project aims to serve the same neighborhoods. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but…

Jeff June 16, 2016 - 4:35 pm

It’s meant to work in conjunction with the BQX, because the ferry system has a wider geographic coverage than the BQX.

Since they are both city projects they likely will have free transfers between them too.

Phantom June 16, 2016 - 2:01 pm

The Coney Island – Staten Island and Soundview – Manhattan routes seem preposterous. Those boats will run empty.

Again, I think that a Bay Ridge – St George SI route would be very successful. When the other routes fail, they can redoploy the ferries there.

Chet June 16, 2016 - 2:52 pm

Oooh…shiny new boats..

Ok.. seriously, most of this plan makes no sense. As a Staten Islander, I’m driving to Coney Island, not to a ferry to take me there.
Beyond that, that there is no ferry from the southern part of Staten Island to Brooklyn or Manhattan is simply ridiculous. If you are going to have a ferry network, Princes Bay to Wall Street (for example) should have been the first route put down.

Adirondacker12800 June 16, 2016 - 3:05 pm

So someone from Tottenville is going to get on the train or take a bus and walk blocks and blocks to get to a ferry?

Chet June 17, 2016 - 6:46 am

No… they’d drive to a ferry.
Just a note, this is possibly one route that might make sense. Currently, it takes well over an hour for someone on the south shore of Staten Island to get to just lower Manhattan by the Staten Island Railway and the ferry.
A fast ferry from Princes Bay to Wall Street is about 45 minutes. In the summer of 2015, NY Waterways tested a couple of different routes.

Guest June 16, 2016 - 7:45 pm

What the estimated travel times?

Stephen June 16, 2016 - 9:51 pm

In the NY Times story, Maria Torres-Springer, the president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation also says that she’s hoping to get another corporate naming rights john a la Citibank for the ferries. If she does, well, they better pay more than the piddling amount Citi is paying for the bike stuff. Granted, I won’t get on the ferry if there is a naming rights john on it, but I guess we’ll all be seeing its name plastered all over the place.

Regardless of that possibility, I’m with Ben on this one. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and those 4,500,000 ferry riders are most certainly the few. The billions of subway and bus riders are the many and we can use the money more. I think even just restoring the hatchet job the MTA did to bus service in 2010 would be worthwhile.

notsosmart June 17, 2016 - 12:03 am

I like ferries. They’re awesome in different parts of the world. Heck, I loved the Staten Island Ferry when I lived there (kind of have to love it – there is no other option that’s viable IMO). There is a certain romance to ferries that a sailor like me can appreciate. I like the chance of being on the water, even if I’m not the one driving the boat.

But this plan is stupid, short-sighted, and smacks of “let’s throw some crap at the wall and see what sticks”. This, and Cuomo’s dunder-headed plan for the train to Willets Point will cost hundreds and hundreds of millions and accomplish little, besides helping tourists (maybe) and wealthier commuters (who prefer Uber anyway).

I’m all for spending money on transit – but let’s spend it smartly, and where it is needed.

Dave of Sunnyside June 17, 2016 - 7:56 am

The subsidy and capital money would have been much better spent buying rail cars and lowering the fares for city residents who could take the LIRR and Metro North. A lot of poorer residents could benefit from lower fares within the City Zone of the commuters railroads.

AG June 17, 2016 - 11:36 pm

Yeah – me personally – I’m not “anti-ferry”… I just think they should get less of an operating subsidy. They should at the very least cost as much as an express bus. The waterfront will continue to get built up – so ridership can go higher… The price also should be higher though.

manny steier June 17, 2016 - 8:35 pm

All ferries should required to be built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Local labor and material should be used to enhance the economy of the city. There are vacant drydocks at the yard. A much appropriate use than a grocery store or a movie lot.

AG June 17, 2016 - 11:37 pm

This mayor gave to contract to a company of the San Fran area… Go figure right… As if there are no operators in this area already.

22r June 17, 2016 - 8:59 pm

Ferries were useful in Hong Kong… until they put in a subway… now the ferries are just for tourists… and the occasional businessman who needs to go from that conference center on the waterfront in Wan Chai to an office in TST.

John June 19, 2016 - 4:48 am

There are a lot of suits on the ferry for a tourist attraction

Nathanael June 18, 2016 - 2:25 am

The South Brooklyn ferry line has some promise because there’s so much development which is waaay west of the westmost subway line.

The others fail the redundancy test. Except Soundview, and that one neighborhood can’t possibly support a ferry.

pea-jay June 18, 2016 - 6:53 pm

When they say non-integrated fare the cost of a subway swipe, this means I can’t use my unlimited metrocard on it unless its drawing from the cash I may have on it like when I take PATH? Or will it be like the Roosevelt Island Tram which I can use an unlimited swipe on?

Spendmore Wastemor June 18, 2016 - 9:06 pm

Pardon if this is a dumb question, but:

Did the figure “4.5 million riders” mean 4.5 million annual trips, OR 4.5 million distinct individuals? There are only 9M in the 5 boroughs, so the latter makes no sense.

If it’s 4.5 million annual trips, that means that the startup cost is more than $75 for each first year trip. A reasonable guess is that it’ll die within 3-5 years, so those startup cost will be spread over few years total.


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