NYWT Suspends South Brooklyn Service

Via Amy’s NY Notebook – NY Water Taxi has announced that it is suspending its South Brooklyn (Brooklyn Army Terminal) commuter service. Unlike the suspension of the East River service, NYWT is not even portraying this as a seasonal cancellation. This leaves NYWT running one ferry service – from Wall Street to Yonkers and Haverstraw.

By NYWT’s accounting, the South Brooklyn service handled “a few hundred commuters daily” (the service was run on larger boats, not the yellow water taxis you see running up and down the river). By contrast, the Yonkers and Haversrtaw route carries a handful of passengers each way. So what makes a lightly-travelled route profitable for NYWT? Public subsidies – which are carrying all of the costs and also probably providing NYWT’s profit. And in its latest service cancellation press release, NYWT is now blatantly asking for more handouts to put its various Brooklyn routes back in service.

As much as I am a fan of the NYWT, it seems to me that something beyond massive public subsidies are needed. If that’s the only solution, why not just turn the whole operation over to the City and run it as a free (or very cheap) service like the Staten Island Ferry?

More realistically, if Brooklyn commuter ferries are to be viable they need two things beyond public subsidies – more commuters and private subsidies. The first comes with lower fares and more development on or near the waterfront, and that will time. At the moment, Long Island City has the largest concentration of new waterfront development. Williamsburg, on the other hand, really only has Shaeffer Landing. Northside Piers is just now nearing completion of its first phase of development. The Edge is just starting construction. Until Domino is approved and built, those two projects represent the sum of Williamsburg’s waterfront development – perhaps not the critical mass that NYWT would need to start running affordable service. (And meanwhile, nothing is happening on the Greenpoint waterfront.)

The second element – private subsidies – would require that developers and developments along the waterfront pony up some money. It is, after all, in their interest and in the interest of maintaining their property values. All of the waterfront developments, and many of the luxury developments inland, tout the Water Taxi as an amenity. But if this amenity remains as fickle as it has been this year, that is hardly a selling point. Some developments, such as the Edge and Northside Piers, have the advantage of being located near public transportation. Others, such as Shaeffer and Domino (and to a fair extent LIC for downtown commuters) are not. But all of the waterfront developments (as well as developments in Red Hook, DUMBO and Brooklyn Bridge Park) stand to benefit from an affordable and reliable water taxi service. And so far, none of them has (publicly, at least) stepped up to the plate.

Until they do step up, its clear that the future of the NY Water Taxi is as a waterborne limousine service for a dozen or two commuters from upriver. At least until those subsidies expire in April.