The Mayor’s Ferry Plan May Not Be the Best Use of $325 Million. But There’s Some Good in There.

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On Thursday, as reported in the Times, Bill de Blasio’s administration announced a great expansion to the ferry system, and it is an ambitious one, consolidating the East River lines we have now and adding others. It includes new boats, new docks, maybe a newly rebuilt home port in Brooklyn, and service to every borough, with most stops along the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts. It’ll start running next year, and the whole system is supposed to be running in 2018. And who doesn’t like a boat ride? Without question, a ferry trip is nicer than a subway trip.

But let us not think of this as a major transit game-changer. Ferryboats have been talked about (and, on and off, used) for decades as adjuncts to the system. They are not a very efficient way to move people back and forth across the river. Dig into the numbers on this plan: Eighteen boats’ worth of service, for which we will spend $325 million over six years, will carry 4.5 million people a year. That’d be about 85,000 per day — less than 2 percent of the subways’ daily total.

The ferry will be substantially subsidized, at a total of $6.60 per ride at first, less if ridership increases past the projections. (By comparison, your average bus ride is subsidized by about $2.20, and an LIRR trip by about $7.85.) The fare riders pay will be fixed at $2.75, equal to the cost of a MetroCard swipe. Riders wouldn’t get (at least for now) a transfer to the subway, so ferry-to-the-train commuters would pay twice. This plan does not include, despite some rumbles, a line to La Guardia Airport.

The excellent transit blogger Benjamin Kabak, at Second Ave. Sagas — who has been very hard on the ferry plannotes that some of these routes, like the ones from Soundview in the Bronx and Rockaway in Queens, are likely to be underused because there isn’t much good mass transit leading to and from the landing. (The Rockaway ferry was tried in recent years, and was canceled because it never caught on. The subsidy came to $30 per rider. Ships cost a lot to maintain.) But at least Soundview and Rockaway — and Astoria, where the ferry landing will be placed, laudably, near a big NYCHA development — are home to a lot of working-class people on whom a subsidy is appropriately spent. By contrast, a goodly amount of this service will carry, and thus subsidize, people who live on the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts, which is to say the well-off folks who need it least.

But enough grumbles: Let’s look at the case to be made for the ferry system, at least as a part of a nutritious transit diet. For one thing, this plan is indeed adding (a little bit of) capacity on top of the rail-and-bus system, and that’s hard to argue against. The question is more whether $325 million is worth spending on so few people, rather than on (let’s say) a big expansion of Select Bus Service, the rapid-transit dedicated bus-lane lines that are running on Second Avenue, 34th Street, and a variety of other places. That $325 million would build a lot of SBS lanes. It might be enough to extend a subway line a few stops into Brooklyn, which would be a real improvement for underserved neighborhoods. (Utica Avenue, anyone?) But it is worth noting that $325 million is a total over a substantial amount of time: $206 million in expense funding over six years, $55 million for building the ferry landings split over the next two budgets, and most of the rest for the new boats, also spread over a couple of years. The annual expense is, despite the big total, not that large.

Interestingly, just this weekend, a design charrette at the Van Alen Institute, in which six finalists proposed temporary solutions to the L train closure, was won by a thoughtful scheme that combined a light-rail line with a fleet of small ferries. (Full disclosure: I sat on the jury.) The idea was to reclaim an underutilized LIRR line called the Lower Montauk Branch, now used solely for freight, and use it to feed passengers to the environs of Newtown Creek, where a series of small ferries could shuttle to and from Manhattan. The idea is to mimic the Venetian vaporetto system. This was an ad hoc rig — its designers, the engineer Youngjin Yi and the architect Dillon Pranger, called it “Transient Transit” — but the idea was to use ferries to support not merely the Williamsburg elite but also middle-class commuters coming from, say, Canarsie and East New York. Again, an imperfect plan, because boats are slow, and you’d need a hundred per hour to equate to the capacity of the L train. But as a system to make 2019 tolerable for Brooklynites who depend on the L, it is a front-runner among the not-great options we have.

Second, there is not a lot of organized opposition to ferries. Most everyone likes a boat ride, whereas everywhere an SBS bus lane is proposed, a cadre of local cranks goes berserk. Every community-board meeting seems to go the same way: Someone stands up, frothing at the mouth over losing six parking places on his block, and a plan to improve the lives of tens of thousands of people goes down. Since ferries have — apart from hard-core transit wonks — no natural enemies, it’s easier to get to a yes. (If not actually easy. One of the current contractors, New York Water Taxi, is probably going to be driven out of business, which has to have been an unpleasant negotiation.) It’s also a lot easier to build than a rail line or even a dedicated bus lane.

But there’s another point worth making in the discussion: For all its limits, this plan will be, like the light-rail system proposed for Brooklyn, city-run. The lion’s share of the money is coming from New York City’s Economic Development Corporation. It will not (apart from some future, hoped-for fare-linking) be under the control of the MTA, and thus it gets one more little piece of our transit future out of the mitts of the Albany budget process. Some guy from Geneseo County cannot attempt to horse-trade it out of existence. One can imagine — or at least persuade oneself — that, in the very long term, this is a baby step toward home rule of our transit system. (The city has been making record-high contributions to the MTA, and the Bloomberg 7-line extension was all ours, paid for by the city on its own, the first such build in decades.) Failing that, maybe it will be so popular that it’ll be expanded, and eventually take some actual load off the subway and bus systems. Yes, it is inadequate. So are our options.