Understanding the Challenges of Regional Ferry Service in New York City
RCWP 10-006 June, 2010

McCandless, Patrick

On February 12th, 2008, Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council, took to the dais at the City Council Chambers to deliver the State of the City Address.  Towards the 17th page of an 18 page address, the Speaker’s remarks turned to public transit and the Mayor’s recently released PlaNYC initiatives.  While transit is generally a hot topic in New York, Mayor Bloomberg had made transportation a centerpiece of his second term and was spending the winter in a campaign to convince the State Legislature to approve a congestion pricing scheme in Manhattan to finance transportation capital projects. 

“It’s only natural to look at our natural highways, our water ways... to move New Yorkers efficiently and sustainably.” Said Speaker Quinn,  “That’s why we are proposing and the Mayor has agreed to begin developing a comprehensive five borough, year-round New York City Ferry System.”   The Speaker explained that the idea for ferry service originated through a series of public hearings she held with her colleagues in the Council:

 “Soon after, we began exploring the concept of a pilot ferry service for the Rockaways…got a commitment from the Mayor to fund it…and that service should be up and running by this summer.

Two years and twelve days later, the rhetoric of the State of the City speech came crashing to an anti-climactic end, as a report in the Daily News announced the cancellation of the Rockaways service.  The ferry would cease operations at the end of March.  

Plans for a five borough Ferry System have not materialized, except for an East River ferry serving developments along the Queens/Brooklyn waterfront, currently with two sailings during the AM and PM peak hours is expected to offer more frequent service next year  The Rockaway route had not met ridership projections and was recovering only 15-30% of its operational costs from revenues collected at the farebox.   The failure of the Rockaway ferry service, combined with the cancellation of another newly opened ferry service between Yonkers and Lower Manhattan in 2009 has dashed the hopes of some who wished to exploit New York’s water resources to improve commuting options via ferries.  This has led to questions about the feasibility of expanding ferry service in New York City more broadly. 

As large sections of the New York City waterfront are reclaimed from decades of industrial land use, idyllic waterfront parks have been developed next to gleaming residential towers.  It seems only natural that ferries will soon serve a role in transporting residents and visitors to these new neighborhoods throughout the City.  However, recent experiences illustrate the many obstacles facing expanded ferry services in New York City