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What Would It Take to Run a Successful East River Ferry Program?

The Rockaway ferry, shown here, wasn't able to survive even with city subsidy. Photo: New York Times.
The Rockaway ferry, shown here, wasn't able to survive even with city subsidy. Photo: New York Times.

A few more details about the city's new subsidized East River ferry service were revealed at a Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance panel yesterday afternoon, including the route's stops and hours. Mostly, however, the panel offered advice on what it will take to make ferries successful and provided some valuable context for the public discussion about waterborne transit.

New York City Economic Development Corporation Vice President David Hopkins offered a little more information about the city's upcoming East River ferry route. The route will be privately run but publicly subsidized; the city is currently in negotiations with operators. How much it will end up costing the city, and how much it will cost riders, wasn't mentioned. According to a report in Crain's Insider today, the city subsidy could approach $20 per passenger. (For comparison, in 2009 the total cost per passenger of weekday New York City Transit bus service was $2.73, with an average fare of $1.14 [PDF].)

The ferry will have "transit-like routing," according to Hopkins, running both north- and southbound along a path from Hunters Point South in Long Island City, to India Street in Greenpoint, to North 6th Street and South 8th Street in Williamsburg, to Fulton Ferry, and then to Manhattan. With the current levels of waterfront development, he said, there isn't yet the market for the point-to-point service that has proven successful from New Jersey to Manhattan.

Hopkins also said that the service would run at least every 20 minutes during peak hours, less frequently than City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden said that morning. The service would run seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Finally, Hopkins emphasized that this ferry program is meant to be a pilot. The city's ongoing ferry study, which is measuring demand for a much larger set of routes, is still underway, and this two- to three-year program is intended to lay the groundwork for a potential expansion, allowing EDC to test demand, marketing strategies, ticketing systems, and their ability to connect ferries with other modes of transport.

The rest of the panel painted a picture of the market for ferry transit in New York, and its opportunities and challenges. Pierre Vilain, a vice-president at engineering firm HDR, contended that the ferry market is already very strong. Not only is the regional ferry system, including both private routes and the city-operated Staten Island Ferry, the largest in the country, but it's also unusually profitable on the private side. "The system is unique when you compare it to passenger ferry services anywhere in the world, I believe," said Vilain, "in that it's primarily self-sustaining from the farebox."

Though many ferry services have met with failure -- most notably the recently shuttered city-subsidized service from the Rockaways -- others have captured large shares of the market. The successful routes are mainly those that cross the Hudson. In New Jersey's Hudson and Bergen Counties, said Vilain, around half of all Manhattan-bound commuters take the PATH, but another 30 percent take ferries.

One important factor in the success or failure of ferry service is the quality and price of the competition. "You cannot compete against subsidized mass transit when you're not subsidized mass transit," said Tom Fox, the founder of New York Water Taxi. His ferry route from Haverstraw to Yonkers failed despite subsidy because it simply couldn't beat the Metro-North Railroad on north-south service.

Just as important is competition from the automobile. Hopkins suggested that in Seattle, where he's from, the health of the ferry system is directly related to investment in roads and bridges. "The solution in Seattle was don't build a bridge, and that's how you ensured ferry traffic," said Hopkins. The ferries "wilted away when we built our bridges and tunnels."

Another key to success will be integration with existing transit. Vilain pointed out that nearly all current ferry commuters both live and work near the ferry terminals. In general, he said, "you're not going to get a lot of market capture when you start moving away from the pier on either the origin or the destination side." However, he noted that along certain NJ Transit lines that feed effectively into Hoboken, ferry ridership continues up the tracks.

Other panel members agreed. "The real key to all of this is integration with the MTA," said Fox, describing the success of integrating London's ferries with the Oyster Card payment system. Hopkins pointed to the need to work with the MTA at the 34th Street pier, "especially when they upgrade that line to BRT."

Finally, there was strong interest in figuring out how to make the ferry system serve more than just commuters. Paula Berry, the harbor district director for NYC and Co., the city's tourism arm, suggested that the ferries be used to link the city's new waterfront parks and create a unified experience. An experiment she ran last summer found a market for recreational ferry riders during midday hours.

Similarly, former MWA program director Carter Craft said that the Rockaway ferry might have been able to succeed if it hadn't had to run empty after dropping off morning commuters. He thought that school and camp groups could have taken the ferry back to the Rockaways for field trips, adding a new market.

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