When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last month that he wanted to help out the struggling water-ferry business, a lot of transportation wonks nodded politely, given what a small portion of the region’s commuter traffic the industry carries. But the news, contained in the Mayor’s PlaNYC proposal, must have sounded particularly heartwarming to three men who operate ferries and who stand to make, if not exactly a killing, at least maybe a profit in this quixotic industry.
On the face of it, the ferry business should be doing well enough to thrive without the $40 million that the Mayor is proposing to spend over the next two decades. High-rise apartment buildings are popping up in waterfront neighborhoods such as Williamsburg and Long Island City; subway lines are overcrowded, and a congestion-pricing plan, which would charge drivers $8 to drive into Manhattan, is in the works.
But in reality, these three ferry operators—not to mention two other smaller companies—are having a rough time of it. The cost of fuel and boats force fares up far higher than what riders would spend on mass transit, and the routes are much less convenient to those who live or work far inland.
Since Arthur Imperatore Sr. founded the modern ferry business in 1986, 22 companies have made a go at the commuter business in the city. Only five survive. (The Staten Island Ferry is run by the city Department of Transportation and is therefore largely subsidized by taxpayers.)
“We have found out the hard way we can’t compete with subsidized mass transit,” said Tom Fox, the president and C.E.O. of New York Water Taxi.
Mr. Fox founded the company in the 1990’s, then closed it down. After the Sept. 11 attacks shut down the PATH line to the financial district, real-estate developer Douglas Durst revived the company. Since then, New York Water Taxi has run $8.9 million in operating deficits that the owner has had to eat.
Meanwhile, Mr. Imperatore founded his company, NY Waterway, as a means to get Manhattan workers to real estate he was developing on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Then, after Sept. 11, NY Waterway expanded rapidly and went into severe debt. In 2005, William Wachtel, a lawyer and investor, bought the debt and formed the Billybey Ferry Company, which owns nine routes but contracts with NY Waterway to operate them.
“We’ve been through a very difficult period since 2001,” Mr. Imperatore told The Observer. “I put $20 million into the company in the last year that I don’t think I will see again. I think we are behind.”