New York celebrates commuter ferry 'success story'

New York (AFP) –


In a city beset by transport woes, the ferry from Brooklyn and Queens to Manhattan is a New York success story, pleasing commuters, delighting tourists and outperforming expectations on its first anniversary.

On a swelteringly hot May afternoon, businessmen, school children, families and tourists queue down the pier, waiting to board a boat for the East River with an impressive view of the New York skyline.

At only $2.75 per head, with an onboard bar, it's the same price as a sweaty, frequently delayed and often dirty subway ride, a bargain gratefully snapped up by those living close enough to the water to enjoy it.

"It's been a lot easier to commute," admits Vivian, a 32-year-old designer from Long Island City, who doesn't want to give her last name. "Of course there are times when it gets pretty full, but it is pretty consistent."

"It's a lot less stressful than the subway," agrees Emily Lynch, 22, a recent New York arrival. "There's not as many crazy people on the ferries."

While the city's 8.5 million residents are increasingly fed up with chronic subway delays, complaints about the ferry focus on their popularity: long queues at peak times and services that some want more frequent than once every 25 minutes during the week and once an hour at weekends.

In a US financial capital infamous for its high prices, tourists are also fond of the ferries and the chance to take in the magnificent Manhattan skyline, with trips recommended in guide books for the thrift-conscious.

Ridership reflects such enthusiasm. City hall recorded 3.7 million passengers in the first year. Two new routes plan to take in the Bronx and the Lower East Side by the end of the summer, raising the total number to six.

- Twice as many passengers as thought -

City officials now predict that ridership could reach nine million by 2023, nearly double initial estimates.

Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio has set aside $300 million over the next five years for new 350-passenger capacity ferries, improvements to piers and docks, and a second homeport where ferries will be maintained.

"New Yorkers have spoken. We are going to need bigger boats. We're gearing up to meet the extraordinary demand," he said Thursday.

Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance who pushed for the ferry service for years, attributes the success to many factors: new boats, the right price and reasonably frequent operations.

"It has really changed people's lives," he said. "It's opening up people's eyes to the city from a whole new perspective: for the first time in their lives hundreds of thousands of people are seeing their hometown from the water."

Supporters say the ferry is helping to rejuvenate coastal communities in outer boroughs, typically former industrial areas, although there are also complaints about rent hikes in a city forever gentrifying.

What remains unclear is whether a less progressive mayor in the future or leaner economic times could spell the end of the hefty subsidies.

The city currently estimates that it spends $6.60 on each journey -- more than double what passengers pay.

Thursday's announcement of the additional $300 million fanned criticism against de Blasio. Some accuse him of favoring the ferries at the expense of the bus or the subway, which serve many areas inaccessible by boat.

Lewis, however, is unapologetic. "I'd like to see a ferry to La Guardia Airport and to Kennedy Airport," he said of the city's two aviation hubs.