National News

As Ridership Surges, Ferries to Get $300 Million to Expand Service

Posted May 3, 2018 6:24 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Admitting that his administration vastly underestimated the appeal of heavily subsidized boat rides, Mayor Bill de Blasio is doubling down on his big investment in a commuter ferry service for New York City.

Standing on a dock in Brooklyn on Thursday morning, de Blasio said he would commit an additional $300 million to expand the service and double the capacity of its fleet. City officials now project that NYC Ferry will attract as many as 9 million riders annually, twice their initial forecast.

“New Yorkers have spoken,” de Blasio said. “We’re going to need bigger boats.”

Some of those regular riders have abandoned the overcrowded, problem-plagued subway system, which carries nearly 6 million riders per day. Others include new residents of thriving waterfront neighborhoods that are poorly served by traditional modes of mass transit, city officials said.

Justin Brannan, a councilman from Brooklyn, praised the ferry service as a better option. “This is Bay Ridge, there’s two ways out: the R train and the Gowanus and neither of them are pretty,” Brannan said, alluding to the traffic-clogged Gowanus Expressway.

Among the changes city officials announced were the ordering of more large boats, the expansion of some of the busier docks and a rush-hour express run between the Rockaways and lower Manhattan that would provide a nonstop cruise from one of the farthest reaches of the city to the financial district for the cost of a subway ride.

Setting the ferry fare to match the $2.75 subway fare was an innovation of de Blasio’s administration. Before he took office, the city was subsidizing a limited ferry service on the East River that charged as much as $6 per ride. City officials estimate that the subsidy for NYC Ferry amounts to $6.60 per passenger.

But de Blasio wanted to present the ferry service as an alternative to the subway. He committed about $390 million to build docks in waterfront neighborhoods that were poorly served by the city’s public transit system and to hire a company to build and operate a fleet of boats.

The city launched the service a year ago and quickly found that it had underestimated demand. Last summer, the city had to scramble to charter boats larger than its fleet of 149-passenger vessels.

City officials, who had argued against the need for bigger boats, relented and revised their order to include boats that can hold 350 passengers. Three of those larger boats are scheduled to arrive from a shipyard in Louisiana over the summer and three more are expected next year.

In the meantime, Hornblower, the company that operates the ferries, will charter as many as eight boats that can carry up to 500 passengers each, said James Patchett, chief executive of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. Patchett said the chartered vessels would allow the city to narrow the gap between boats to 20 to 25 minutes on all four of its routes, down from 25 to 60 minutes last summer.

But Patchett warned that he could not promise that demand would never again exceed the capacity of the ferries. “On a really crazy beautiful day in the summer when it seems like everyone in the city wants to go to the beach at the exact same time, there are still going to be lines,” he said.

The service is scheduled to add two routes this summer, one starting in the Soundview section of the Bronx and the other on the Lower East Side. After those routes are established, city officials will decide where the ferries might go next, de Blasio said. “There’s a lot of places that would like ferry service,” he said.

De Blasio disputed the idea that the investment in the ferry service would be better spent improving the subways and buses, which serve far more riders and some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods. He reiterated his view that the best solution for the subways would be a steady source of increased funding, such as an additional tax on the city’s wealthiest residents.

“The answer is a long-term funding source that would allow us to fix the whole Godforsaken thing,” de Blasio said, adding that he believed a different balance of power in the state Legislature this fall could provide sufficient support for a so-called millionaire’s tax.

Standing on the dock in the sunshine, de Blasio refused to let the steady tide of questions from skeptical reporters erode his enthusiasm for the ferry service he deemed a resounding success.

“We’ve got to do more than one thing to create a 21st-century city with multiple mass transit options for people,” the mayor said.