2010-05-07 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Vincent S. Castellano is a former chairman of Community Board 14 where he has been a member for 20 years. He is a former first vice president, treasurer and director of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce.
By Vince Castellano

City Hall wants to kill the Rockaway Ferry. The mayor has money to plant a million trees, he has the money for bike lanes we don’t need, he even has the money to slowly make Manhattan a pedestrian mall, but he has no money to subsidize a Rockaway Ferry.

The excuse is that the ridership does not justify the subsidy. The subsidy per passenger is enormous ($20 per head), but the daily total subsidy is only $3,000 per day. Most city agencies spend more than that on office supplies before lunch. City Hall says they gave the Rockaway Ferry a fair shot and the subsidy is not justifiable based on the ridership. But there are those who think the ferry plan was designed to fail. I am among them.

But, for a moment, let’s engage in a fantasy.

Let’s pretend that if we were to devise a sensible ferry plan, then City Hall would recognize the wisdom of it and actually support it with a subsidy. Like I said, it is a fantasy.

What would a sensible ferry plan look like?

In order for a ferry to have a reasonable chance of success, it must be competitive with the service and price of the Express Bus. The Express Bus schedule from Rockaway has 13 trips to Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. The return trip has 17 buses from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. They all take more than one hour and the cost is $5.50 each way.

The Rockaway Ferry has one trip out at 7:30 a.m. and one trip back at 5:40 p.m. The ride takes one hour and the cost is $6 each way.

The first problem is the schedule. There is no flexibility. If you miss the boat you are out of luck. With such a limited schedule the only possible regular customers are those who can confidently punch-in and punch-out at work at a very predictable time. Basically that means the customer base is limited to secretaries and government employees. That is a tiny percentage of the labor pool, especially on Wall Street. When I worked on Wall Street I never left the office before 7 p.m. But it is not surprising that a ferry schedule designed by government would only accommodate people who work for government.

To appeal to the larger labor pool then you will need to provide a wider level of service. Something comparable to the Express Bus. You could even go to the next logical step and extend the return trips to the later evening hours to encourage people to stay in Manhattan for dinner and then take the ferry home. That would expand the potential customer pool even more.

Everybody wants the ferry to have a terminal down the block from their house so they can walk to it. But for the ferry to be successful it must be fast, very fast. Multiple stops just won’t work. The ferry cannot be successful as the equivalent of a subway on the water. It slows down the whole trip and makes it much less appealing.

In addition, part of the trip to Manhattan is in the open ocean and under the Verrazano Bridge. It can be rough out there, especially in winter. The boat must be of some size to make the trip in all kinds of weather because reliability is critical. The right kind of boat for that portion of the trip is not the same kind of boat that is suitable for Jamaica Bay.

The ferry with the best chance of success would be non-stop from a single location in Rockaway to Manhattan. There have been numerous tests and a non-stop ferry from Rockaway with the right boat can be docking in Manhattan in 30 minutes.

The next feature of any successful ferry would be a competitive price. The ferry is an exhilarating ride and a great way to start the day, but the fact is that people will only pay a modest premium for just the thrill of the ride. The subway is only $2.25, but people gladly pay $5.50 for the comfort and convenience of the Express Bus. What would the consumer pay if the ferry ride was just 30 minutes? That is a very interesting question and nobody knows the answer. But what is even more troubling is that City Hall doesn’t care to find out.

Designing a fast Rockaway Ferry with the right boat and the right schedule may still not generate the ridership that is needed to make the ferry economically viable without a subsidy. Rockaway has only a limited number of bodies going to Manhattan daily.

It seems to me that there is almost an unlimited number of commuters available at the Flatbush Avenue exit on the Belt Parkway. I do not understand why there has been no effort to lure those motorists down the road to use the ferry. Getting those cars off the road would even make the air cleaner. But all the brilliant minds at City Hall who are pre-occupied with “green” projects have failed to see the possibility.

Perhaps mysteries like this are why many people believe the ferry was designed to fail in the first place.

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