In his Thursday State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to expand the NYC Ferry network of commuter boat lines, operated by Hornblower Cruises. “Today I announced the next big expansion of NYC Ferry,” the Mayor said. “We’ll link Staten Island to the West Side of Manhattan. We’ll connect Coney Island to Lower Manhattan.”
The new Coney Island route will connect to Pier 11, near Wall Street, on the East River. The Staten Island line is slated to land at the Battery Park City Ferry Terminal (on the Esplanade, near Vesey Street), before proceeding to Pier 79, at the Hudson River and West 39th Street. Both new services are expected to launch in 2020.
The proposed Staten Island route raises several questions that will likely be of interest to Lower Manhattan residents. The Battery Park City Ferry Terminal has been the focus of noise complaints by residents for years, and these concerns have escalated as the terminal has seen greater, more frequent use. Apartment dwellers closer than 100 yards to the terminal regularly attend meetings to Community Board 1 to air grievances about small children who are awakened at 6:00 am by ferry horns designed to be heard more than one mile away, which are sounded by departing boats every few minutes.
In 2017, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which owns and manages the terminal) began allowing sightseeing boats to operate from the facility. More recently, the Port Authority has expanded weekend ferry service between New Jersey and the Battery Park City terminal, in order to offset Saturday and Sunday closures (for the next two years) of the PATH trains between the World Trade Center complex and Jersey City, needed to repair damage to the tunnels beneath the Hudson River sustained during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Adding a new fleet of commuter boats, serving Staten Island, to this mix may exacerbate an already strained situation.
Counterbalancing these concerns are questions about how fully Richmond County commuters will embrace the new route announced last week by Mr. de Blasio, when the existing Staten Island Ferry (which lands at South Street) is free.
The NYC Ferry version will is being touted as faster: By about seven minutes for the water-borne part of the trip, with an average of 12 additional minutes saved for commuters who then walk to offices in Lower Manhattan. (Staten Island residents commuting to Midtown would typically save a total of 40 minutes, according to the City’s Economic Development Corporation.) That noted, the NYC Ferry from Staten Island will not be free. It is scheduled to be priced at $2.75 — the same as a subway or bus fare. But unlike the City’s subway and bus systems, NYC Ferry offers no free transfers to other modes of transit. This could have the effect of doubling the cost of a daily commute for any rider who needs to board a subway or bus after disembarking from the ferry.
More broadly, the NYC Ferry system as a whole has been the focus of criticism for its heavy reliance on public subsidies. The true cost of each passenger trip aboard one of the commuter boats is many times the $2.75 fare that the public pays. The difference (about $6.60 per passenger) is made up by the City, which this support costing more $44 million in 2018 alone. These payments are expected to grow in years to come, as NYC Ferry ridership leaps from three million passengers in 2017 to a project nine million in 2019. The de Blasio administration has allocated $300 million for this support over the next five years.
By contrast, the subsidy required to operate the Staten Island ferry at no charge to riders is approximately $4.86 per passenger, a figure that has been falling in recent years. For additional context, average subsidies per passenger trip amount to about 63 cents for subway riders, and $2.20 for bus passengers. In this respect, NYC Ferry riders are more closely akin to passengers on suburban commuter lines, like the Long Island Railroad, where each passenger enjoys an average subsidy of more than $7.00 per trip.
A related question hinges on demographics. NYC Ferry passengers tend to be more affluent than average New Yorkers, and often inhabit waterfront neighborhoods that are either historically fashionable or rapidly gentrifying. (Residents living within half a mile of a NYC Ferry stop and earning more than the City’s median income outnumber those living inside the same radius, but earning less than the City-wide median, by a margin of more than six to one.)
This level of public support buys NYC Ferry passengers a more comfortable commute than the subway can offer, with amenities like the onboard availability of food and alcohol, wireless internet connectivity, and a breathtaking view. But even at the projected total ridership of nine million passengers in 2019, the NYC Ferry system will be carrying during the entire year fewer patrons than the subway system welcomes in just two average weekdays. This means that the ferry service, even at expanded ridership levels, will handle slightly more than one-half of one percent of the numbers of passengers on the subways.
Whether so much taxpayer support to benefit so few people is an appropriate allocation of public resources remains an open question. The de Blasio administration counters that the City needs to cultivate a diverse range of transit options to serve a growing, modern metropolis, and argues that a robust ferry system is just one of these, among many.