Bloomberg Wants to Give Ferries a $40 M. Boost

Compared with the $50 billion that the Mayor, in his PlaNYC document, suggests spending on transportation, the $40 million for ferries is a drop in the bucket. And it may be far from enough—able to cover just 10 other Yonkers-ferry-style subsidies from now until the year 2030.

About $10 million of that amount would come from congestion-pricing fees; another $30 million would come from other sources, according to the nonbinding plan.

One of those other sources will likely be the federal government, for which the Bloomberg administration is preparing a grant application over the next two months to get some of the $1.2 billion available for transportation innovations. The Mayor would like to ask for money to support the cameras and other infrastructure needed to implement congestion pricing, but that would require a sign-off from Governor Eliot Spitzer, who has yet to endorse the charge to drive into Manhattan. Ferry subsidies, on the other hand, could be administered without any cooperation from Albany.

Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow for transportation at the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, convened a closed conference of ferry experts last November. The consensus, Mr. Zupan said, was that ferries needed and deserved public subsidies. And yet that conclusion caused many anxieties, among them the prospect of opening a stream of public funds that would get larger and larger and make less and less sense.

“You have to draw some well-defined lines in the sand and say, ‘We are not going to subsidize this beyond some level,’” Mr. Zupan said. “I don’t know what that level is. Maybe you can even memorialize it in some kind of legislation.”

Mr. Doctoroff, however, anticipates that different routes would need different levels of subsidy. Some routes, apparently, don’t need subsidies at all. SeaStreak, a high-speed ferry company that brings over 1,550 people daily from Monmouth County, N.J., to Manhattan, makes a “substantial enough” profit, according to general manager David Stafford. (Its parent company, Sea Containers Ltd., however, has put the service up for sale to focus on its core cargo service, he said.) And, despite its troubles, NY Waterway expects to make a slight profit this year.

“Frankly, we are up against all the subsidized systems, the trains, all the public systems, and
so we have got to offer a premier service,” Mr. Imperatore said. “It’s a private, entrepreneurially driven effort, and naturally, we are always spit-and-polish.”