Citywide Ferry Service Could Cost $100M Annually

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called for the introduction of comprehensive, citywide ferry service at her State of the City Address a couple of weeks ago. That made John Kaehny wonder how the ferries would be paid for and how much they’d cost. This week’s Queens Chronicle seems to have part of the answer:

“(This) is an absolutely great idea,” said Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), chairman of the council’s Transportation Committee. “We need to rediscover and utilize this tremendous natural transportation resource to overcome many of the challenges faced by a growing city.”

Operating costs for the five borough ferry service could reach up to $100 million annually, according to Liu, and will require the city to combine them with debt service on capital expenditures, like building docks. But when compared with other mass transit expansions, he added, “this is a very manageable investment for the long term.”

Sounds expensive.

  • rhubarbpie

    I believe when Mr. Liu suggests something is a “manageable investment,” it means that he expects to receive contributions from ferry boat manufacturers, dock-builders and their friends, and that he will be able to manage those contributions and invest them in his next campaigns.

  • Larry Littlefield

    If the state knew the city had $100 million a year, it would pass a pension sweetener that woudl cost that much.

  • That’s not really much money at all. It’s $12.50 per NYC resident per year.

    However, I’d expect the operating costs to be much higher than that. The Staten Island Ferry alone costs $83.8 million a year to run (that’s $4.25 per passenger!). Source:

  • The high-speed ferries contemplated by Ms. Quinn and the rest may be especially environmentally unfriendly. I am told that the fuel-use per passenger is high as compared to buses and trains. Has anyone studied ferry costs and benefits?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Yo Mike, good math. But if 100 million = 12.50 per head in NYC is so little why has the city had to cut that much each year from the MTA for the last 12 years through half of Dinkins, all of Giuliani and all of Bloomberg? And how come Mayor Bloomberg cannot afford that much for the MTA in the absence of congestion pricing?

    Worse, there are almost 20 million people in NY State and throughout the Pataki era cut MTA support by the same $100 Billion a year, thats “only” $5 a head per year.

    Still though when you pile all of these “onlies” together you get an MTA debt of 2.2 Billion per year. And the interest on that growing debt is getting pretty high too.

    So, how come we can afford increased ferry service to “underserved” neighborhoods of “only” $100 million year and still can’t afford the same $100 million for the entire MTA region moving 5 million people a day?

    So in the end, viewing this ferry plan as affordable really has to be viewed in the greater context of mass transportation funding and tests the values and resources of our political economy.

  • Matt H

    My understanding was that per passenger-mile, ferries are just about the most expensive public transit out there. Can’t find a reference right now. 🙂

  • ddartley

    Quinn is foolish for being such a gleeful obstructionist to the Pedicab industry on one hand while focusing on New Deal-scale, long-term, expensive objectives such as this on the other.

    Sure, it’s good that she can propose long-term, grander solutions such as ferry service; we do need that kind of thinking. But her amazingly unenlightened approach to rules on the streets cut her merit in half.

    Speaker, the more you try to strangle the pedicab business, the worse the business will appear to be, in terms of bad behavior. Allow regulations that will help the business grow safely and responsibly, and the City’s streets will be safer and healthier for everyone.

  • Jake

    Ferries are indeed very expensive! I have not seen conclusive evidence against ferry services, but the subsidies required are generally much higher than existing bus and subway subsidies. Even with a significant subsidy they’re generally not an option for lower income people because the ticket price is between 4 and 12 one way.

    Here is a link to a paper discussing the positives and negatives of ferry programs (although the authors are generally supporitve — a little too supportive in my opinion.),+Opportunities+and+Technologies&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a

    Here is another link to the San Francisco Water Transit Authority’s marketing scheme for their ferry system — it clearly shows the SF system was developed for an affluent suburban population (although it was paid for by increasing tolls on bridges — from another population that is likely affluent and suburban.),+Marketing+Plan+for+South+San+Francisco/Oakland+Ferry+Service,+San+Francisco,+2007.&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a

  • Thanks for those links, Jake. Is this guy for real?

    It is worth discussing “induced demand” here, as it is an important concept for evaluating the beneficial effect of any type of transit. This concept suggests that building transit corridors (freeways, bridges, and ferry routes) is, in the long run, hopeless. The existence of a convenient corridor will induce decisions to use it as opposed to not traveling at all, until the new corridor is as choked as the old ones. Therefore any and all improvements in transit should be opposed.

    Hello, strawman anyone? Nobody actually believes this, do they?

    yonkers service is getting heavy subsidies, the monthly discount price is around $400 a rider for 20 rt rides. metro-north from the same location is about $165 for a monthly , which can used for a lot more than 20RT. i wonder where the riders come from in yonkers, there is the new residential buildings next to the ferry terminal/Yonkers pier. i believe they built a new parking garage for the ferry boat users. Yonkers also doesnt have any buses go to the ferry or pier, just a drop off circle for valet parking for the two bars/restaurants on the pier. These two items should preclude them from receiving any subsidies. They are subsidizing private car usage with the parking garage and no public transit, and creating an anti public transit by enabling them to have the ferry without connecting bus service. there used to be a lot of connecting bus service at the Yonkers train station, but they moved it about 1/2 mile away it was too low class with the NEW “yonkers” redevelopment.

  • the city – i.e., the Quinn’s office AND the Mayor’s office – are looking at all those variables (route, cost, fares) right now. Let’s not forget that waterfront neighborhoods are almost completely un-served by subways right now; the bridges go way high above and the tunnels dive way,way down below the river beds. We did a study a few years ago that showed you could serve much of Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Manhattan with decent service for only about $5 million/ year. And let’s not forget the waterways are THERE so no need for tunneling, track work, signals, etc. What needs to be achieved is CONNECTIVITY – ferries and water taxis that connect directly with waiting buses…

  • Thanks for chiming in, Carter. You inspired a post that turned out to be much longer than I planned:

    Long story short, are you talking about serving existing residents, or encouraging new residents who would have to be subsidized indefinitely? I’m not against subsidies, just trying to get the best bang for the subsidy buck.

  • Hilary

    Connectivity to the riverfront greenways is potentially one of the most powerful synergies of an extensive ferry network. It should particularly be evaluated for letting students bike to school, and then developed for that purpose.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Let’s not forget that waterfront neighborhoods are almost completely un-served by subways right now; the bridges go way high above and the tunnels dive way,way down below the river beds.)

    That’s true on the destination side too. Downtown, most of the employment is located a short walk from the water, but downtown, that isn’t so. That’s why I suggested expanding the Times Square shuttle east through the Con Ed site, at grade under the FDR, to the ferry terminal.

    As for Quinn, she is about to approve a development that doesn’t even include an easement for that, thus killing it forever. It is at least worth a question.

  • hey Cap’n et al – actually I’m thinking about subsidy for both – existing residents/ workers as well as some who might now come becuase it’s easier to get to/ from there. The missing element I see in all this Transit Debate – and I’ll admit I haven’t followed it as closely as some – is the need to look “MODE BLIND” at the question of subsidy. I.e. what’s the most cost effective way to get a person from Point A to Point B via public transit? Obviously the mode of choice may change, depending on whether you are factoring in debt service on capital (buses, subway cars) or “just” operating costs (Labor, fuel, etc)

  • Good point, Carter. I’d like to see us go not just beyond mode, but beyond getting people from Point A to Point B, and look at our long-term goals, something like this:


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