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12.08.2009
Ferried Away
As winter looms, East River water taxis can't stay afloat
The Water Taxi fleet motors past the Battery on the Hudson.
Courtesy New York Water Taxi

Brooklyn’s waterfront condo dwellers are again up a creek. For the third time in four years, commuter water taxi services on the East River are likely to take a winter hiatus as ferry operator New York Water Taxi weathers a seasonal dropoff in revenues. What’s more, the city has halted plans to increase East River ferry service by spring 2010, pushing that expansion back at least another year.

That’s bad news for developers of luxury residential projects in Brooklyn and Long Island City, who banked on water taxis to carry commuters to Manhattan. One survey found that nearly half the residents of Williamsburg condo Schaefer Landing considered the taxis a significant factor in their move there. But now they’re caught in a chicken-and-egg conundrum, as the city bides its time until building occupancy—and ferry ridership—increases.

Plaintive though the cries of Brooklyn bloggers may be, only a vocal minority regularly relies on water taxis, which get about 4,300 monthly riders in summer. The service will need a much wider range of commuters if it is to catch on permanently. New York Water Taxi requires about $900,000 in yearly subsidies to continue operating East River service through the winter, when monthly ridership drops by half.

Both Tom Fox, president of New York Water Taxi, and David Lombino, a spokesman for the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which subsidizes the commuter service, said talks to keep ferries running through the winter are ongoing. But commuters have learned to expect the worst: In 2008, service shut down on January 1 and didn’t return until June.

Launched that same year, the EDC’s ambitious ferry plan included new and expanded service throughout the five boroughs and continued subsidy of East River service through 2010. The first phase, opened last May, connected Far Rockaway to South Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. The second phase, now delayed, would add new stops at North Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and a new landing at Roosevelt Island, funded by $4.4 million in federal transportation funds, with an additional $1.1 million from the Bloomberg administration and the city council. (Even more quixotically, perhaps, the EDC recently announced a feasibility study for commuter ferry service from Manhattan to Coney Island, with stops near the New York Aquarium, KeySpan Park, and a new pier to be built in Coney Island Creek.)

Encouraging a green mode of transportation that requires little infrastructure would seem a no-brainer for the Bloomberg administration. But as city officials face a $5 billion deficit, developers, commuters, and ferry operators can agree on one thing: Fiscal, not environmental, sustainability will determine the fate of waterborne transportation in the coming year.

Jennifer K. Gorsche