Ferry Riders Weigh the Prospects of Higher Fares, or Even No Rides at All.
Published: October 23, 2004
HOBOKEN, Oct. 22 - Riding the choppy waters of the Hudson River on Friday, ferry riders urged transportation officials to figure out a way to preserve the region's largest private ferry company, New York Waterway, without reducing service or raising fares.
The riders, reacting to news that New York Waterway is having financial troubles and is in discussions with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey about how to maintain service, said they were surprised, sad and worried that their daily commuting routine would be disrupted if an arrangement cannot be worked out.
"I've been riding the ferry for 12 years, and it is the best way to commute," said Steve Bauman, 39, a marketing manager for an insurance company. "It is more expensive than the PATH and other methods, but it is faster and better. It would be a real blow if they took it away."
Mr. Bauman is one of an estimated 38,000 daily commuters who travel on the Hudson River, rather than over or under it. Some of New York Waterway riders said they had long heard from ferry personnel that the company was in financial trouble, but they had hoped that things had gotten better.
"I find it amazing that the company is having money problems," said Virginia Calabrese, a financial clerk from Bayonne, as she rode a ferry from Hoboken on Friday morning. "The boats are full, and they charge $8 for a round-trip ticket. It seems like a money maker, and it is a premium service people want to pay for."
Officials from New York Waterway and the Port Authority said they were continuing to meet, but they refused to disclose details about their discussions.
The company says it has "cash flow problems" and has asked the authority to help figure out how to maintain service on some routes. Port Authority officials are said to be considering a variety of options, including subsidies, shifting routes to the two other ferry companies and even taking over the service.
But an official at one of the smaller companies that also provides ferry service said that the industry would not be able to maintain the level of service that commuters are used to without government operating subsidies, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the city would not provide. The city has long operated ferries between Staten Island and Manhattan.
"I don't know what they're looking for, but I can tell you the city doesn't have any bucks, thank you," Mr. Bloomberg said on his weekly radio program on WABC radio. But, he added, "all kinds of transportation in one way or another does seem to wind up subsidized by government."
New York Waterway's troubles have transportation and government officials reeling. The company had led a revival of ferry service in the region, then had expanded rapidly, establishing routes up and down the Hudson River and making ferry service an integral part of the transportation system that carries commuters between New York and New Jersey.
Environmentalists and planners have lauded the trend, which provided an alternative to congested roads, bridges, tunnels and railroads. It also restored a romantic notion of the city and brought a renewed life to its waterways.
The two smaller companies that provide ferry service to 6,000 customers daily, New York Water Taxi and SeaStreak, declined to comment on Friday about whether the Port Authority had asked them to take over routes that New York Waterway might have to abandon.
David Stafford, general manager of SeaStreak, issued a statement assuring riders there would be no disruption in service on his company's routes from Atlantic Highlands and South Amboy, N.J., to Lower Manhattan. But Tom Fox, president of New York Water Taxi, said that the industry deserved some governmental assistance. The firms now receive only assistance to buy equipment and build ferry docks.
"But a lot of us feel that that is not sufficient," Mr. Fox said. "The best approach is to have them subsidize us against the fare box on routes that they want until it becomes a money-making operation for us."
Deborah Jack, who operates a Web site dedicated to ferry travel to New York, has been a critic of New York Waterway for several years. She expressed hope for a government takeover of New York Waterway.
She said she wanted the Port Authority or New Jersey Transit to take over from Arthur E. Imperatore Jr., the president of New York Waterway, and use its resources to make the ferry more viable.
"Ferry service has become a necessary means of transportation, but has become more and more expensive so that only certain people can afford it," Ms. Jack said.
But she warned that if the Port Authority awarded a ferry contract to another private company, like SeaStreak or New York Water Taxi, commuters would soon find themselves in the same predicament of fare increases and limited schedules.
"There is a great opportunity to do something spectacular with the light rail and the PATH and the ferry to make the commute easier and to ease the congestion in the tunnels and roads," she said.
She said that with a government takeover, tickets could be used for either rail or ferry service. Some commuters said that if prices continued to rise, they might switch to the PATH train or other ways to get into Manhattan.
"Right now a monthly pass for the ferry is $123 and the PATH costs $80," said Tracey Starr of Ramsey as she exited a ferry at Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan. "I hope they do not close the ferry down, but if they do or raise fares again, then I might start taking the PATH."