Don’t call it a comeback, but New York City is basking in a second golden age of boats. Or at least, that’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio would have New Yorkers believe.
On Wednesday, to much pomp and circumstance, De Blasio unveiled yet another NYC Ferry route, this one connecting the Lower East Side to Wall Street, Midtown and Long Island City. Amid a growing mobility crisis spreading its tentacles across the city, the mayor once again gathered the usual suspects for a riverside ribbon-cutting ceremony.
But for a city increasingly trapped by the politics of state control, a subway system sagging under the weight of a backlog of deferred maintenance, and roads choked by more and more cars, the mayor’s love of ferries and the steep taxpayer subsidy spent ensuring low fares for a select slice of New Yorkers is particularly ill-suited for the city’s pressing transportation needs. The city needs to reclaim its transit future, but ferries are a niche mode of low-capacity transportation and a distraction from far more pressing problems.
The mayor’s latest love affair with ferries may seem like an anomaly in a city whose history is dominated by the growth of the subway system and the scars of Robert Moses’s highways, but once up a time, before bridges and tunnels spanned the East River, New York’s waterways provided the only passage between the island of Manhattan and the island of Long. At its peak in the early 1900s, right before the subways opened and the city could spread outward and upward, nearly 150 boats provided ferry travel between the city’s disparate boroughs.
The ferries worked well when Manhattan and Brooklyn were separate cities with people living and working around the waterfront, but as the population surged and overcrowding in tenements became a public health crisis, the city had to build inward and upward. Elevated trains snaked through Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the Blizzard of 1888, when trains ground to a halt and boats became stuck in the snow, drove home the need for a subway. Ferries fell out of fashion as the subway—true rapid transit—became the way to get around. Ferries, after all, can’t connect Forest Hills to Fifth Avenue.
De Blasio’s push for an East River ferry system came about because he seemed to recognize that the city needed to chart its own transportation future. Despite a disinformation campaign by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the MTA is through and through a state agency, and the city has little control over the future of its own subways or buses. The mayor isn’t wrong to look for alternate transit options the city can build and control—but a heavily subsidized ferry network does not solve the city’s problems, and may exacerbate the economic strains stretching across New York’s neighborhoods.
To make the ferries more appealing, the mayor decided to keep the fare at $2.75, a symbolic gesture to tie it to the amount of a Metrocard swipe. To do that, the city is subsidizing ferries by approximately $6.60 per ride. The city has also spent approximately $500 million on ferry infrastructure, all without providing rigorous analyses of ridership demographics and origin-destination patterns. It’s not a coincidence that the city’s Economic Development Corporation rather than the Department of Transportation is in charge of ferries, or that the EDC has kept details about ferry ridership under wraps.
With a cost to NYC taxpayers of $6.60 per passenger, the ferries are on par with the subsidy for some of the MTA’s most expensive express buses, a luxury transit option that the MTA has tried to whittle down over the years.
The picture gets worse when ridership comes into focus: A Village Voice investigation found that ferry riders tend to be tourists or wealthier New Yorkers with good jobs who want to avoid the subway, and my own analysis of census data provides an additional glimpse at the economics of the ferry’s so-called catch basin. When I looked at census tracts that have at least one address with half a mile of the ferry terminals in Queens, Brooklyn and Soundview in the Bronx, I found a median household income around $18,000 higher than the city average, and removing Astoria, the only dock truly amidst low-income housing, that median climbs above $20,000 higher than average.
On top of that, the reach of the ferries is particularly narrow. The NYC Ferry’s own website proclaims that only around 500,000 people live near the ferries, and thus 94 percent of New York City residents do not have easy access to the boats. Meanwhile, the boats fit between 150-300 passengers and run, at best, two to three times per hour. The busiest routes provide travel for fewer passengers per hour than one half-empty Q train does at any time of the day.
And although ridership has outpaced projections, the total numbers are modest. The EDC claimed that nearly 3 million passengers rode the ferry in its first year, and the agency expects 9 million riders by 2023. For comparison, that 2017 figure is nearly equivalent to the annual ridership on the city’s 55th busiest bus route, or approximately two thirds of one days’ subway ridership—or around 3.5 months of Citi Bike, a transit system operating without any city subsidy.
The ferries are a pleasant way to travel for a select group of New Yorkers, and the rest of us are paying for it. Meanwhile the bus system, which at its peak served over 2 million riders per day, is largely ignored by the city. Advocates also had to twist the mayor’s arm to provide $200 million for subsidized MetroCards, but he is front and center for the press push to subsidize ferry rides. This is not sound transit planning, and it does not bridge the city’s equality or mobility gaps.
What can the city better spend with its $30–$40 million per year in fare subsidies or its $500 million in capital funding that went toward the ferry? If New York City wants to take over its transit future from the state, it needs to consider a holistic approach to high-capacity transit, and it must spend fare subsidy dollars more efficiently. A true network of surface transit akin to light rail networks could connect New Yorkers to growing job centers and bridge the transit desert gap far more effectively than a network of ferries can. The city, which controls its surface transit, could create a light rail network immediately; after all, Kansas City built a new light rail line in two years. Plus, construction and operation would be outside of the purview of the MTA so the city-state battle would fall by the wayside.
Ultimately, ferries are a part of a larger puzzle, but only a small one—and the mayor keeps treating them as though they are the centerpiece. He doesn’t seem to have a holistic vision for city control of transit or the dream of creating a true network of city-controlled transit that gets all New Yorkers—not just those near the waterfront—from where they live to where they work. Boats just aren’t the answer to turn this tale of two cities into one.
No light at the end of the tunnel for MTA, comptroller finds
The subways are bad—and Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota’s $836 million “Subway Action Plan” isn’t making them much better.
That was just one of many bleak conclusions state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli reached in his annual report on the MTA, released Thursday morning. The chief fiscal officer said the agency faces nine-figure annual budget shortfalls that will hit $634 million by 2022, even if the authority goes through with plans to jack up fares and bridge and tunnel tolls, and assuming that the local economy continues to grow at its current brisk pace.
The deficits largely stem from swelling health insurance costs and debt service to pay off the bonds that financed the 2014-2019 capital plan. Past capital plans have run long and been underfunded—the MTA is still trying to complete projects in the 2005-2009 program—and the comptroller voiced doubts that the state entity is capable of executing the next five-year plan, let alone the 10-year, $40 billion Fast Forward proposal to fully modernize the city’s trains and buses.
Quality of service has spiraled downward and utilization has shrunk even as the city’s population and job market have blossomed.
“Our regional transit system is in crisis,” DiNapoli said. “Despite an infusion of $836 million in state and city funds, there has been little improvement so far in subway service. Riders are leaving the system in frustration and deserve better.”
MTA officials have said the action plan stabilized the system, preventing further declines in on-time performance.
With only three months remaining in the year-and-a-half-long action plan, DiNapoli discovered that the MTA has allocated just 58% of the money it obtained from the state and city and from a new excise on for-hire vehicles. Roughly 40% of what it spent on what Lhota deemed “emergency” repairs went toward overtime for existing employees, while outside contractors gobbled up 28%. Just 12% of the money got spent hiring new staff, which can be difficult to do on short notice in a tight labor market.
Not one cent has gone toward replacing the transit network’s notoriously antiquated signaling system or its uneven and corroded rails. Despite the $836 million infusion, and $20 million from the new vehicle levies, DiNapoli determined service has improved only “marginally.” Fewer than two-thirds of trains arrived on time on weekdays in 2017, and nearly 30% of subway cars are more than three decades old.
The report lacks even a glimmer of hope. It notes that the MTA is counting on $300 million in unspecified savings to balance its books, and that planned projects like the Second Avenue subway rely on uncertain federal support. Meanwhile, negotiations with the Transport Workers Union—closely allied with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed Lhota and controls the MTA—loom next year, meaning employee costs may only bloat further.
The comptroller acknowledges that “the MTA is asking the state to authorize new sources of revenue,” an allusion to Cuomo’s calls to enact congestion pricing, which would charge autos for entering the Manhattan business district. But he refers to that controversial proposal’s prospects as “not assured.” And continued feuding between the governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio over how to fund capital improvements only worsens the authority’s credit and delays progress.
The MTA referred Crain’s to its internal findings of the Subway Action Plan’s salutary effect on service, and pointed to the hiring of Andy Byford to lead its New York City Transit division. It also maintained it was on track to get its finances in order, though failed to provide much detail on its plans.
“We know these issues and the struggles riders are facing well—it’s why the MTA has new leadership, dramatic modernization plans, short-term blueprints for improving service, aggressive cost-containment initiatives and why we’ve been pleading for sustainable, reliable sources of funding,” spokesman Jon Weinstein said in a statement. “ These issues are well documented and it’s exactly why we’re focused on solutions, which is all we’re focused on every minute of every day.”
Ferry rides are costing taxpayers $8.96 apiece
No wonder only rich people own yachts. Operating costs for the city’s ferries increased by 50% last fiscal year as the system expanded to reach farther-flung locations and officials filled service with chartered vessels.
The Economic Development Corp. spent $44 million running boats in fiscal 2018, according to recently released budget documents, up from $30 million the year before. That jump occurred because the number of routes increased from three to six, including sojourns to Soundview in the Bronx and southern Brooklyn. The frequency of trips also added to fuel costs, the city said. Over the same time period, ridership increased from 1.8 million people to 4.1 million.
While the network has proved popular with residents, tourists and elected officials, it also has been expensive to get off the ground. For the past two fiscal years combined, the per-rider cost to the city was $8.96. Passengers themselves pay $2.75, the same as a MetroCard swipe. The development corporation declined to provide per-rider subsidies for individual fiscal years but noted that the metric went up slightly.
“Like any popular startup, initial costs will always be higher than they are in the long run,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “The incremental difference in operating costs is mainly attributed to increased service that was needed to meet ridership demand that surpassed our initial projections.”
In particular, the city had to charter private boats to cover some of the routes as it waited for all 23 of the vessels it has ordered using $84.4 million in capital dollars, part of hundreds of millions dedicated to the network. James Patchett, head of the corporation, said in May that once those ships come in and chartered vessels are eliminated, the city hopes to be closer to its ultimate goal of getting the subsidy to $6.60 per rider, which he noted is in line with other forms of transportation, such as the Long Island Rail Road.
However, some reports have dinged the initiative as an expensive way to serve relatively few riders. For example, even the mayor’s ridership projection of 9 million people by 2023 would put the entire ferry system on par with the 15th busiest bus route, according to an article in the Village Voice, which also suggested that most ferry riders were affluent New Yorkers who live in pricey waterfront apartments. The city pushed back against that characterization and said that the Voice’s rider survey was done during more traditional working hours and before routes to the lower-income areas of Soundview and the Lower East Side were launched.
NJ Transit derailment shows how pain persists for commuters
Round-the-clock repairs at Pennsylvania Station were supposed to guarantee smoother New York City train commutes. They haven’t.
New Jersey Transit’s Montclair-bound Train 6279 went off the tracks Thursday at 6:20 p.m. near the Hudson River tunnel, where Amtrak last year oversaw $30 million of stepped-up maintenance after three trains derailed. Amtrak, which owns the Manhattan station and shares it with commuter railroads, “ruled out any issue with the infrastructure” after investigating the latest mishap, spokesman Jason Abrams said in an emailed statement.
NJ Transit expected no major delays for Friday evening’s rush hour. It was “looking into the possibility that an equipment issue with the train may have been a contributing factor,” spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said in an emailed statement.
The crumbling and century-old Hudson River tunnel provides the only New York City access for NJ Transit trains, and Amtrak has said it has less than 20 years of serviceable life. It’s key to the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor route, serving an area that generates 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product. Amtrak’s proposed $30 billion Gateway project includes a second tunnel and other improvements, but President Donald Trump’s administration hasn’t pledged a federal cost share.
“Every time something like this happens, it’s a reminder of why we need another set of tunnels,” Stewart Mader, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Riders Council, said in an interview.
A tunnel power failure stranded about 1,600 passengers on two trains on Sept. 8. A moment after one re-started, a piece of metal, possibly displaced from the overhead electrical system, pierced the roof of one car. Amtrak this week said it was continuing to look for a cause.
NJ Transit described the Thursday incident as a “minor slow-speed train derailment” with no reported injuries. Some riders on social media described reaching their destinations as much as three hours late initially and on Friday morning.
Occasional passengers complained on Twitter about missing shows and family outings. Commuters, though, ranted about a week of unexpected delays heaped atop service cuts as the agency pulls locomotives from service to install federally mandated emergency braking systems. Crowding, already a chief complaint, will worsen in November, when the railroad makes a push to hit its Dec. 31 installation deadline.
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