Here’s What You Need to Know About the City’s Big Ferry Expansion


Among the many things that Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about during his State of the City speech in February was a plan that a lot of New Yorkers thought was long overdue: expanded ferry service in a city where four of the five boroughs are not connected to the continental United States.

“Today, if you live in one of those neighborhoods—the Rockaways [in Queens] or Red Hook [in Brooklyn] or Soundview [in the Bronx], among others—a job in Manhattan can easily mean an hour or more of commuting, even when the skyline is visible from your home,” Mr. de Blasio said in his speech. “You can actually see opportunity, but practically speaking, it’s very far away.”

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So simple, so straightforward—and so true.

“When you look at where growth is happening in the city, so much of it is happening on the waterfront areas, which are traditionally challenged from a transit standpoint,” said Seth Myers, an executive vice president and director of project implementation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which is overseeing the expanded ferry network project.

But the best part is that the city is finally acting on this.

The new ferry network, which focuses on the East River side, will launch in 2017. The proposed city-funded $55 million plan is meant to service neighborhoods that are transportation starved by the current network of buses and trains and blend five new routes with the NY Waterway’s East River Ferry network, which travels from Manhattan to terminals on the Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts and also has a route to Governors Island. The ferries are operated by BillyBey Ferry Company, which has a partnership with NY Waterway.   

“This is a major, transformative initiative that the city has announced,” Paul Goodman, the chief executive officer of BillyBey Ferry Company, told Commercial Observer. “At the same time it is part of the process of almost a generational shift in the way New Yorkers connect to the waterfront.”

The East River Ferry System as It Looks Now

The current East River Ferry network consists of eight terminals that link Manhattan and neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, and is operated all year long.

The service launched in 2011 as an initial three-year pilot, and ridership increased very quickly. Total ridership in 2014 was nearly 1.3 million people, according to the EDC. Two years ago, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a five-year extension of the service until 2019 because of the demand. The city also began studying an expanded ferry network and released its early findings in 2013.

Current locations for the ferry network in the East River are East 34th Street in Midtown, Hunters Point South in Long Island City, Greenpoint, south Williamsburg, Dumbo, Wall Street and Governors Island.

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The Staten Island Ferry.

The Staten Island Ferry is currently not a part of the East River Ferry service, but was highlighted as part of the network of services during Mr. de Blasio’s announcement.

Unlike the boats in the East River Ferry service, the ferries that transport Staten Islanders to and from Whitehall Street in Lower Manhattan from St. George are not operated by BillyBey Ferry Company. The city’s Department of Transportation owns and operates the Staten Island Ferry, which serves about 70,000 riders daily.

Through subsidies, the Staten Island Ferry is free, while rides on the East River Ferry are set at $4 one-way on weekdays and $6 on weekends.

What the Expansion Will Look Like

The new landings are being built in stages.

By 2018 there will be five new routes for the East River Ferry network, mostly stemming from the outer boroughs. Routes for the Rockaways, south Brooklyn and Astoria will launch in 2017, followed a year later by two routes from Soundview and the Lower East Side.

The EDC is currently designing barges, which will hold ticketing machines and seating, for the three initial routes. It expects to begin installing landings along the routes in the second half of 2016.

Although the routes have been planned, some of the exact locations for the ferry landings have not yet been decided. The EDC is still examining locations near Center Boulevard at the top section of Gantry State Park for the LIC North ferry landing, which will be the second ferry dock in the neighborhood.

The EDC is hoping to select an operator (or operators) for the ferry network by early next year. The city agency estimates that there are approximately 17,000 New York City Housing Authority apartments within a half a mile of a ferry landing that will be directly served with the new docks.

Mr. de Blasio’s plan draws on data highlighted in the EDC’s 2013 Citywide Ferry Study. The new ferry service would cost $2.75 for a trip, or the price of a MetroCard fare. This will be made possible because the city would provide subsidies of about $20 million per year for the service, Mr. de Blasio said.  

“It’s [financially] feasible,” said Roland Lewis, the president of the Waterfront Alliance. “Ten [million dollars] or $20 million a year is what it will cost to subsidize it. In terms of a transit budget, that is next to nothing. The $3 [million] or $4 million it takes to make the ferry dock is like three inches on the Second Avenue Subway—and it could be moved!”

The Stumbling Blocks

No matter how good a ferry network is built, it will still have to work in conjunction with the rest of the city’s mass transit system.

“The ferry cannot be a stand-in for the subway system,” Mr. Myers said. “It is on a completely different scale. But I think the ferry can be impactful for certain neighborhoods.”

Passengers disembark at The East River Ferry Williamsburg dock (Photo: Aaron Adler).
Passengers disembark at The East River Ferry Williamsburg dock (Photo: Aaron Adler).

To compare, 1.7 billion passengers rode the subway in 2014, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Residential booms in developing neighborhoods in the outer boroughs helped to cause a rise in ridership, burdening the system. The Bedford Avenue L train station in Williamsburg had more than 27,000 average weekday customers for example.

“It’s certainly not a cure for all of our transit problems,” warned Mr. Lewis. “We are still a city that will rely on a large and amazing system of subways and buses. But it will alleviate congestion in certain areas that need it like Williamsburg and Long Island City, and it is equally important for neighborhoods that are transit starved—I use the example of Astoria and Soundview in the Bronx.”

A few experts question some of the choices the city is making in terms of where to plant the terminals.

“The ferries that make the most sense are where there is a large and growing market on the waterfront like we are seeing in Long Island City, Greenpoint and Astoria,” said Jeff Zupan, a senior fellow of the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy organization. “My suggestion to the mayor is to try out one or two routes first rather than throwing all five out there.”

Mr. Zupan added, “I just think that the Soundview one is a questionable one. We have studied that one before. I think it will end up being very lightly used and highly subsidized.”

More Than Just a Way to Get Across the Water

“We are anticipating there will be recreational touring trips taken on the citywide ferry,” said Helena Durst, the president of New York Water Taxi, which operates a fleet of ferries for cruises in New York Harbor, including trips past the Statue of Liberty.

“It can be one of the nicer ways to travel in New York from the view perspective and having open air,” Ms. Durst added.

Indeed, the ferry is the quality-of-life alternative a lot of commuters have been craving over a packed subway car. Many of the trips that were taken on the East River Ferry since its inception have been by tourists looking for a cheaper way to see the city.

“Ferries have become a very popular transportation service in the communities we serve,” Mr. Goodman said. “If you talk to people in the Rockaways it was extremely popular, because it is a faster and pleasant form of transportation.”

After Superstorm Sandy, ferries were able to get back online quickly, rather than other modes of transportation that were knocked out during the disaster.

Plus, it’s also not too grandiose to think that a functional ferry service will do more than merely offer transportation. “It enhances the commercial property values on the East River,” Mr. Goodman said.

For all of Commercial Observer’s coverage in the first-ever transit issue, click here.