By Sabina Mollot
Earlier this month, the news that the city’s ferry system was costing taxpayers nearly $11 in subsidies has raised concerns about the value of the service and if the ferries are serving commuters in an equitable way.
The City Council held a hearing on the subject last Wednesday, although an attending representative for the Economic Development Corporation, which operates the ferries along with Hornblower, offered little in the way of information about demographics of ferry riders and just how much they’re using the system.
Later, Council Member Keith Powers, whose East Side district residents utilize two of the new ferry stops along the Lower East Side route (20th and 34th Street) said there are still many questions that need answering. However, for him, it’s not a question of whether the ferries are worth the investment — he believes they are — but how money can be saved in the future and how the system can be tweaked to better serve commuters with the most need.
The current $10.73 per person subsidy, he noted, is in part due to the cost of buying the fleet of ferries upfront as opposed to having rented them, which over the long term, is estimated to save the city $150 million.
“Hopefully we’ll find some effective ways to save money, and it is important to see data on how it’s working, what pickup points are worth keeping or changing the frequency,” Powers said. “We need clear data about what’s working from the EDC, which doesn’t seem to exist. We’re pushing them to do more.”
The EDC didn’t respond to a request for comment from Town & Village, but Chief of Staff James Katz was quoted in Gothamist as telling the Council the agency didn’t have ridership stats.
“We don’t have information on who precisely is riding the boats today,” Katz said. “Most of our ridership, particularly in the commuting hour, are commuting into work in Manhattan or Lower Manhattan.”
Still, Powers says the local stops should stay since from what he’s been hearing, they are getting used.
“Just today I had somebody tell me he uses it every day and on a beautiful day like today it’s a wonderful way to get around,” Powers said.
Meanwhile, so far the city isn’t considering consolidating any routes; rather, the ferry system will soon be expanded to include Coney Island.
At the hearing, while the high cost of subsidies were brought up, from what Powers was told, ferries as well as the subway are still the cheapest ways for people to get around.
“Whenever they expand a subway route to a new neighborhood, there is a tremendous cost as well,” said Powers. “Again I think there is an opportunity to see the efficiencies in the long term.”
Another issue raised at the hearing were whether the EDC should be the governing body of the ferry system or if it should be the Department of Transportation in order to better integrate ferries with other forms of public transportation. The Council has a bill pushing this idea, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer has said the DOT should explore the idea immediately.
Another proposal is to charge tourists a higher fare than what locals pay. On this, Powers said he hasn’t formed an opinion one way or the other. He also said he would like to see more marketing of the ferry system to remind New Yorkers that it’s there.
“You make more money if you get more people to pay the fare,” he said.