Here We Go Again – East River Ferry Service To Be Halted

If it’s November, it must be time to start talking about canceling East River ferry service for the winter.

[The] operator of the ferry service, New York Water Taxi, says that it has not been able to come to an agreement with the city about continuing the subsidy [that is supposed to carry service through to 2010], and that it might have to halt the East River commuter service for the third time in four years. Further, the city’s Economic Development Corporation said that because of the recession, plans to expand the ferry service on the East River have been delayed for at least a year, until spring 2011.

There are a few things at play here, none of them encouraging. NY Water Taxi continues to be unable to make the East River commuter route profitable. Tom Fox, who runs the Water Taxi, has long said that commuter service is just that – a service. He makes money on the tourist service, which in turn subsidizes the money-losing commuter end of the operation. Since there are fewer tourists riding boats in the winter, there is much less incentive for NYWT to run a money-losing route. That’s where the City’s subsidy was supposed to come in, but clearly that has not happened, leaving NYWT to once again threaten to cut off an important transportation route.

The other not-encouraging piece of news is EDC’s statement that the expansion of the ferry route to north Williamsburg and Greenpoint is being pushed back another year. That can’t help existing waterfront developments like the Edge and Northside Piers, and it also doesn’t help the many in the Northside and Greenpoint who don’t live in towers on the waterfront but would like to have a better way to get to downtown or midtown. It also doesn’t help people like Jon Bernstein, who is trying to get community support for a supersized tower on the Greenpoint waterfront or the development of the Greenpoint waterfront in general. As Bernstein said in his presentation to CB 1’s land use committee last week, one of the the big draws of his location is he ferry service he plans to install on the India Street pier wants to build. Bernstein’s primary marketing plan seems to be to attract financial types working on Wall Street (not there are many of them left, and, by the way, most of them don’t work on Wall Street anymore, but that’s another story) by touting the “5 minute” commute from India Street (it’s more like 25 minutes, but whatever).

There is also a whole chicken and egg connection between the expansion plan and the need for City subsidies. If service was expanded to North Williamsburg and Greenpoint (and, if as planned, more trips were added throughout the day), there would be more commuters. But until service expands, the existing Long Island City/Schaefer Landing service is not enough to fill boats – particularly Schaefer, which is so remote that its ridership is drawn primarily from the development. Service stops on the Northside and in Greenpoint would draw from a much larger pool of potential commuters, potentially putting the Water Taxi closer to a break even point on commuter service and potentially have some small but positive impact on the “horribly overpopulated” L train1. (The Water Taxi is more expensive, and does not come with a MetroCard transfer – another thing the City should fix – but it is a viable option for people working in Lower Manhattan and for people working at Bellvue, NYU Medical Center or anywhere else in the East 30s.)

And last, now that the election is over, you can expect that EDC’s postponement of East River ferry service expansion (“because of the recession”) to be but the first in what is likely to be a long winter of City cutbacks.

1. Speaking of which, I was reminded last night that the City/MTA have yet to make to good on the solitary transportation mitigation measure that was promised as part of the 2005 rezoning – the widening of the Bedford Avenue staircases on the L train. It’s been four and a half years since the rezoning was enacted, and still no sign of any impending increase in steppage.