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‘Blue Highway’ Blues: A Maritime Freight Pier is Coming to Downtown Heliport … By 2029

It's progress, but does it really take five years to build a barge — especially one that's been in talks for five years already?

Rendering: EDC|

That little white barge is what the “Blue Highway” revolution could look like at the Downtown Heliport.

The city unveiled plans to build a maritime freight delivery facility at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport on Monday, but those upgrades won't have to happen until the end of this decade, according to documents.

The Lower Manhattan chopper terminal is slated to get a barge where boats can offload goods for last-mile delivery via small trucks or cargo bikes, as part of the city’s efforts to move goods on its many waterways instead of trucks on the road, a proposal dubbed “blue highways.”

How Streetsblog covered the blue highway last year. Click to read.

But the deadline for an incoming operator to build that floating drop-off isn’t until mid-2029, according to the Economic Development Corporation, which manages the heliport and put a request for proposals [PDF] for a new concessionaire to take over the downtown landing pads near Wall Street. The five-year contract would start in the second quarter of 2024.

The contractor will be tasked with building the marine freight staging dock, along with adding charging infrastructure for electric helicopters known as electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, or eVTOL. Companies showed off the futuristic aircraft with a smiling Mayor Adams on hand — though such shiny objects still need federal approval before they can fly commercially.

Some 90 percent of goods come into and move around the city via truck, according to the Department of Transportation, and city leaders have been hatching plans about moving freight from the road to the city’s waterways for at least two mayoral administrations.

Talk of shifting freight to the waterways has been a recurring theme in city plans since at least 2018, culminating in the de Blasio administration's sustainable freight vision dubbed “Delivering Green” in 2021. That was followed by the “New” New York Panel’s report last year, and Mayor Adams’s PlaNYC sustainability report. In other words, if a single new dock is built in Lower Manhattan in 2029, it will be the very beginning of a freight revolution that city officials have been talking about for at least 11 years.

Eleven years after this de Blasio-era report, Lower Manhattan may finally get a dock for last-mile deliveries.NYC EDC

One business owner in the maritime industry said officials need look no further than New York City's past when the piers on the East River and the Hudson buzzed with maritime commerce.

“This is the way New York City used to operate 100 years ago. I guess we can’t step back in time, but I guess we need to,” said Jim Tampakis, owner of maritime supplier Marine Spares International in Red Hook, who for years has advocated to bring back more waterborne freight. “I don’t understand why it takes everybody so long to move on this kinda stuff.”

Renderings show how the new jetty could stage deliveries for cargo bikes to pick up and ride to Lower Manhattan, for example using those battery-powered pedal-assist bikes DOT has been showing off

The years-long transition back to the waterways could be because nautical transport is still in its infancy, said a leader at a beer distributor that last year tested out delivering suds from the Bronx to the South Street Seaport via boat on the East River. 

“What they’re trying to figure out here is really novel,” said Alex Bergson, vice president at Manhattan Beer Distributors.  “It’s all real trial and error right now."

Cargo bikes could deliver goods from the new facility. Rendering: EDC

The Council's Economic Development Committee chair praised the city for moving forward, but urged officials to do all they can to reduce on-street truck traffic.

"While we always want important projects like this to happen sooner rather than later, I applaud the NYCEDC for getting this commitment from the contractor," said Bronx Council Member Amanda Farías. "Our highways and local streets in communities like mine in the Southeast Bronx and across our outer-boroughs are dangerously overcrowded. We have to do everything we can to alleviate road congestion and lessen the harmful effects of pollution."

The new operator has to start construction six months after its designs are done and approved, but the new delivery facility won’t have to be operational until the end of the five-year concession agreement. 

“What’s exciting is that things are moving very fast on both fronts,” said EDC President Andrew Kimball, when asked by Streetsblog about the timeline for the two projects coming to the heliport. 

The federal government last year awarded EDC a $5.2-million grant to upgrade six city-owned landings that connect to the road network but lack infrastructure to dock boats and offload cargo. Those included the downtown heliport, along with Stuyvesant Cove, Pier 36, and the 23rd Street Pier in Manhattan; the 29th Street Pier in Brooklyn; and Oak Point in the Bronx. 

EDC and DOT launched a callout earlier this month for ways to reactivate waterways for freight deliveries, and the agencies plan to do a pilot at its marine facilities at some point.

Building out the downtown dock for marine freight will cost around $1.2 million, EDC estimates, but the contractor can get reimbursed through the federal grant money by up to 80 percent, or $960,000.

An EDC spokesperson declined to provide specific timelines for upgrading the other five waterfront locations, saying their schedules depend on federal approvals and environmental reviews.

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