2010-06-25 / Front Page

Ferry Sails Into Sunset

By Nicholas Briano
Despite hopes of coming together as a community to find a way of making the Rockaway ferry to Manhattan a permanent amenity, local residents who enjoy the commuter ferry will have to find another means of transportation beginning Friday, July 1.

As of July 1, Riis Landing will stay vacant as the Rockaway commuter ferry sets sail for the last time on June 30, unless the City Council can find a way to subsidize the service. As of July 1, Riis Landing will stay vacant as the Rockaway commuter ferry sets sail for the last time on June 30, unless the City Council can find a way to subsidize the service. According to EDC spokesperson, David Lombino, it doesn’t look as if any last minute reprieves are in order that will keep the ferry running from Riis Landing to Pier 11 in Manhattan when it is planned to cease operation on that date.

From the beginning, the city’s reason for not supporting the ferry has been that it is too expensive, costing the city nearly $20 in subsidies per passenger for each ride. Officials say that there are just not enough people who ride the boat each day, which drives up the per-rider cost of the subsidy, as officials stressed during a meeting in April at The Belle Harbor Yacht Club. That low ridership and the expense of subsidizing the service are the reasons why it cannot stay in operation, city officials say.

In order to save money, one of the two original trips was eliminated from the daily route two months ago. However, the changes in schedule have not changed the number of riders who take the ferry, which remains the key component in deciding its fate. Historically the ferry has seen a slight increase in riders during the summer, but in contrast, a significant drop-off occurs in the winter months.

Some locals have suggested trying other ways of increasing ridership.

One such suggestion was to get the Port Authority of NY/NJ involved and create a partnership connecting JFK Airport, Rockaway and Manhattan with ferry service. However, Councilmember Eric Ulrich says there’s “little interest” in that plan.

“I had a preliminary discussion with the Port Authority,” Ulrich said this week. “But at this moment they showed little interest in helping subsidize ferry service or bringing it to JFK.”

Ulrich contends that he is doing everything in his power to keep the service going, because, as he has said in the past, it will be difficult to get the service back to Rockaway once it leaves for good.

“Me and my colleagues in the council are working to find a way to extend ferry service beyond July 1 despite the tough economic times,” he said. “We understand how important it is for the daily ridership and the Rockaway peninsula.”

Ulrich says it is difficult to defend to the residents of Rockaway that $300,000 in annual funding will be eliminated from the upcoming budget, while at the same time $3.7 million in spending will go towards conducting a feasibility study of ferry service on the East River.

“The budget includes the transfer of $3.7 million in fiscal year 2011 to EDC [Economic Development Corporation] from DOT‘s [Department of Transportation] budget for an East River ferry service study,” he said. “How can I justify to my constituents to spend money on an East River study while at the same time eliminate existing ferry service to the Rockaways?”

The Rockaway commuter ferry has never averaged the minimum threshold of 300 riders per day, the number needed in order to make the ferry self-sustaining. According to city officials, on average, the subsidy per ride, per person on the city subway is $.56. Those who ride MTA buses are subsidized to the tune of $1.64 for each ride and Staten Island Ferry and Long Island Rail Road riders are subsidized $6.00 for each ride. The city subsidy for the Rockaway ferry service, however, is currently $19.57 per ride, costing the taxpayers approximately $3,000 per day. That is more than the city is willing to spend.

According to statistics provided by the city back in April, the ridership totals have hovered below the 200 mark since September of 2009. But even at its height, during the summer of 2008, the service still had fewer than 300 riders each day on average.

On Wednesday, Lombino issued a prepared statement to The Wave.

“The termination of service on the Rockaway Ferry, while disruptive for some, reflects the fact that its ridership numbers did not justify the continued expenditure. We see the City’s waterways as a viable transportation alternative, and are completing a Citywide Comprehensive Ferry Study to be released later this summer. The Study analyzed more than 40 proposed and existing landing sites, including the Rockaways, and will provide us with viable options for ferry service throughout the City.”

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