2010-02-26 / Front Page

Disappointing End To Ferry-Tale

By Nicholas Briano
The once much-anticipated Rock away commuter ferry service pilot program will be shut down, just shy of its projected two years of operation. The city cites low ridership and depleting funds as the primary reasons for its termination.

The Commuter Ferry from Rockaway to Manhattan will be terminated on March 19, for averaging lower than anticipated ridership numbers. The Commuter Ferry from Rockaway to Manhattan will be terminated on March 19, for averaging lower than anticipated ridership numbers. The ferry service, which began in May 2008, subsidized with $1.5 million in funding from the City Council, was supposed to last for two years but the lower than expected ridership caused the ferry funds to deplete more quickly than expected, causing the ferry to have its final run on March 19.

The Economic Development Corporation, which headed the program, states that to operate the service costs between $90,000 and $150,000 per month. However, the fares only recovered about 15- 30 percent of the monthly cost. The difference between the fares and operating cost subsidized by City Council was as much as $100,000 a month.

“When we went into contract there were certain benchmarks that the service needed to reach,” EDC spokesperson David Lombino said. “Ridership was lower than we had hoped, averaging on weekdays 120 riders per day in winter and 280 per day in the summer.”

As a result of the low ridership, it cost the city more than $20 per day per rider he says. EDC remains optimistic that a citywide ferry study currently being conducted could result in a return of ferry service to Rockaway and other parts of the city.

But local activist and longtime lobbyist for peninsula-wide ferry service Joe Hartigan says the program, which was run by New York Water Taxi, was set up for failure from the beginning.

“The ferry operator went after subsidy and not riders. They used the wrong boat and locations to leave from,” he said. “It was nothing but boat welfare for the operator. The times stunk for riders.”

But, longtime Bay Ridge resident and ferry rider Mike Minchin, who has taken the ferry from the Brooklyn Army Terminal on and off for more than 20 years whenever the service was offered, says New York Water Taxi was the best operator, ever.

“I take the ferry from Brooklyn Army Terminal to Manhattan, I have been taking the line on and off for 20 years,” he said. “This is by far the best service ever offered. They were the better suppliers.”

Similar to other riders, Minchin likes the service because it works for him, but he understands what works for one may not necessarily work for other commuters.

“People know the ferry is here but choose not to use it. It is not as convenient as the express bus for some people, however I do think it is a more reliable method of transportation. But how do you convince the city to invest more money in something people are not using?” he said. “I don’t know how you make the case to spend all this money on a small amount of riders, but I wish more people had used it because it would certainly prove its use to riders.”

EDC attributes the termination of the ferry primarily to poor ridership, but New York Water Taxi insists that the service gained in popularity during its short existence.

According to the operator, in the period between 2008 and 2009, citywide ferry ridership declined by nearly 15 percent, while during this same time period, Rockaway ferry service increased 2.3 percent.

“We think that by bucking the tide of reduced ferry ridership citywide, Rockaway ferry service has proven its importance to Rockaway residents as successful and we hope that the City can find a way to continue it,“ Stacy Sherman said, spokesperson for New York Water Taxi.

Rockaway resident and rider since day one, Ellen McCarthy has praised the service since its inception and wants to do anything possible to help save the ferry.

“The Ferry has been a success, providing a transportation lifeline to residents of our Peninsula, which is starved for public transportation,” McCarthy said in a letter to The Wave. “Our elected representatives, particularly Mayor Bloomberg in November’s close election, would not have won their elections without us. They cannot be allowed to take away the Ferry that we fought so hard to get. The continuation of Ferry service is the key issue for residents of our Peninsula. It is vital to our community.”

Councilmember Eric Ulrich says he understands what the ferry means to the residents of Rockaway who rely on it every day, as McCarthy does.

“I am outraged over the plans to end the ferry service. The people of Rockaway and Breezy Point rely on the ferry as a vital lifeline to travel to and from work every day,” he said. “Any reduction or elimination of this service, especially on such short notice, is a direct slap in the face to the Rockaway community. We need to expand ferry service, not end it.”

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