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Future Full of Ferries
NYCEDC report analyzes ferry service around the city.
The 34th Street ferry terminal.
Courtesy Kennedy & Violich

Walt Whitman wrote of New York ferries: “On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose.” But finally there are more recent eyes on the business of getting people cross the river. Expanded East River Ferry service is set to launch in early June with a new ferry terminal hub designed by Kennedy & Violich planned for East 34th Street opening next year. Both are part of a New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) pilot program and a practical component to City Planning’s recently released Vision 2020 waterfront plan. But lost in the tide of initiatives announced on March 14, the NYCEDC’s Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study slipped under the radar.

Ferry Terminal

The deck of the proposed 34th Street Ferry Pier.

The study takes a hard look at the viability of ferry services throughout the New York region and attempts to make sense of the various routes already in existence, which, if mapped one atop the other, look like a platter of spaghetti. Besides the 21 million annual Staten Island ferry riders, there are more than 10 million traveling back and forth from New Jersey alone. The report attempts to sift through the “plethora of agencies overseeing various aspects of the ferry service,” including the Port Authority, the DOT (both NYC’s and New Jersey’s), the FTA, the Coast Guard, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few. Pros and cons for several governance approaches get play, such as centralized control on the order of the Port Authority, the MTA, or the DOT. A local ferry district akin to a BID is one suggestion, but doing nothing at all gets equal play.

The ferry terminal in front of the Manhattan skyline.

Julie Wood, a spokesperson for NYCEDC, said that the pilot program and the report stand apart. “There’s a common sense link,” she said. “But there’s no formal connection.” The report’s goal is to be comprehensive not visionary. It delves into neighborhoods far beyond the East River. But along the way, the wheat separates from the chaff. A ferry going from Coney Island to Midtown, it notes, takes 10 to 20 minutes longer than the subway, but a Greenpoint commuter going to Lower Manhattan saves 15 to 20 minutes by ferry. Not surprisingly, the report finds the East River corridor “most promising” for establishing regular routes.

At $5.50 one way, the trip costs about the same as commuter express buses. The route connects East 34th Street and Wall Street in Manhattan to Long Island City, then Greenpoint, North and South Williamsburg, DUMBO, and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The inclusion of a Friday jaunt to Governor’s Island during the warmer months conjures an interesting proposition found in the study that deals with integrating commuter service with recreational uses. The report suggests diverging tour boats during rush hour to serve the commuter needs, then bumping up traffic to destinations like Governors Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park during weekends. The merging of programmatic uses could fall into other categories as well, such as emergency evacuation.

Mayor Bloomberg and Council Speaker Quinn have shown significant support for the pilot program, but it will be up to the next mayor and speaker to determine the fate of the program. Some wonder if a Commissioner of Water Transport might also make sense. To be sure, many outside the administration will continue to push for a focus on coordinated service. “I absolutely think it’s viable,” said Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. “The operating subsidies are reasonable. Plus, the track and the repair work on the Hudson and East River are minimal.”

Tom Stoelker