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Four years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to spend more than $325 million on a fleet of custom-built ferryboats and docks so that more of the city’s neighborhoods would have a better transit connection.
But since then, the costs of starting up a ferry service that links all five boroughs have almost doubled from Mr. de Blasio’s original commitment, which has drawn criticism from transit advocates, elected officials and government watchdogs. One complaint is that the service caters mainly to higher-earning residents at a time when the subways are still in need of repair and state officials are preparing to charge drivers to enter Manhattan’s busiest areas.
The mayor has called such criticism “very shortsighted.” He has argued that the ferry service is providing a fast, affordable commuting option to neighborhoods that had long been “transit deserts.”
On Wednesday it’s expected that city officials will have an opportunity to defend the mayor’s plan during a City Council hearing, where a committee will consider giving the city more say over how and where the ferries operate.
“This is the wrong time to be doubling down on the ferry network,” said Ben Fried, communications director for Transit Center, an advocacy foundation for urban mass transit. “The mayor has become so enamored with it because it’s something he can point to as his own. But the irony is that it’s diminishing his impact on the city’s transportation systems.”
One of the new routes Mr. de Blasio announced this year — between Coney Island and Wall Street — is projected to require a subsidy from the city of $24.75 for every passenger, according to a report from the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic organization.
The commission said that the average subsidy for each passenger in the system’s first year of operation was $10.73, far more than the $6.60 subsidy the de Blasio administration originally estimated.
City officials say the subsidy will fall as the system attracts more riders. They now project that it will drop to less than $8 per passenger, after the addition in the next two years of routes to Coney Island, the North Shore of Staten Island and Ferry Point Park in the Bronx.
But that forecast hinges on an estimate that two million riders a year will opt to pay $2.75 to ride from Staten Island to the West Side of Midtown when they can get to Lower Manhattan on the city-run Staten Island Ferry for free.
On top of the annual operating subsidy, the city has also paid for new docks in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, and is preparing to buy the fleet of custom-built boats that run between them. The city’s comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, has tried to block the $85 million purchase of the boats while calling for City Hall to be more accountable for the “exploding costs and liabilities” it is absorbing for the ferry system.
The boats were ordered and purchased by Hornblower, a private company that the city’s Economic Development Corporation hired to operate the ferry service. The development corporation’s contract with Hornblower included options for a city takeover of the fleet, either at its request or Hornblower’s.
Officials at the development corporation said that public ownership of the assets of a transit system is a “best practice” used throughout the country. Also, the development corporation said the savings on fees that it would have paid to Hornblower during the first two years of ownership would cover the purchase price.
Transit advocates like Mr. Fried say the ferry system is a “niche” service that almost exclusively attracts residents of waterfront neighborhoods who work in offices in Manhattan. They note that the ferries do not accept MetroCards, preventing free transfers to subways or buses, which reduces their appeal to commuters with tight budgets.
Mr. de Blasio has repeatedly pointed to the overcrowding and operational problems in the subways, which are controlled by the state and not the city, as justification for expanding the ferry service.
“We’re starting a whole new form of mass transit,” he said at a recent news conference. “Anyone who wants to say, ‘Don’t start a whole new form of mass transit, what we got now is enough,’ come on into the subways with me and I’ll prove to you it’s not enough.”
City officials also disputed the notion that the ferry service caters only to the affluent, saying that 40 percent of the residents of neighborhoods with ferry docks have low to moderate incomes.
In many cities, ferries are treated like a luxury mode of travel. But Mr. de Blasio has repeatedly stated that pegging the ferry’s fare to the subway’s is a matter of fairness.
Although it would cost $27.50 per person to ride the ferry from Coney Island to Wall Street, according to the Citizens Budget Commission’s report, the estimated 1,100 commuters will only pay $2.75.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the expanding public ferry system charges regular riders $5.30 to cross the bay from Oakland to downtown San Francisco. The same trip on the BART subway system costs $3.50. But an hourlong ferry ride to San Francisco from suburban Vallejo costs $11.
Over all, the fares for ferries in San Francisco cover about half of the operating costs, according to the system’s operator, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority. In New York, the city covered about 80 percent of the operating costs in NYC Ferry’s first full year of operation, the Citizens Budget Commission found.
NYC Ferry first began as a privately operated service that ran on the East River for a few years before Mr. de Blasio became mayor. That operation, known as the East River Ferry, also received subsidies from the city. But it charged higher fares: $4 per ride on weekdays and $6 on weekends.
With a private company in charge, the routes of the East River Ferry were limited to places where demand was highest: the gentrifying sections of Brooklyn, the Wall Street area and Midtown Manhattan. Those are still the most popular stops, but the de Blasio administration has added docks in other neighborhoods that were not well served by mass transit, including Astoria in Queens, Red Hook in Brooklyn and Soundview in the Bronx.
On a sunny spring weekday, the riders on ferries appeared to be a mix of professionals and working-class residents commuting for work and personal reasons.
At the East 34th Street landing in Manhattan, Dereje Wordofa strode aboard in a suit and tie and a snappy leather hat. Mr. Wordofa, an assistant secretary general of the United Nations from Ethiopia, said he had been riding the ferry back and forth from Brooklyn since he arrived in New York about a year ago. He praised the service for its punctuality, saying he could set his watch by the boat’s arrival in the morning.
“This is like a luxury for me, coming from Africa,” Mr. Wordofa said, sitting at a table inside the cabin that he said offered space to prepare for the workday. “I don’t ride the subway.”
On the long run from Pier 11 near Wall Street back to his home in Soundview, John Rivera, 51, stretched out in a four-seat section he had all to himself and counted the ways he loved the ferry.
“This boat is convenient,” said Mr. Rivera, a supervisor for the New York City Housing Authority. “You always can find a seat. There’s nobody leaning against you. In the wintertime, it’s nice and warm in here. In summer, it’s always cool.”
Like Mr. Rivera, Kristina Risso, 54, professed her love for the ferry, which she rides to Lower Manhattan from her home in Astoria. “I think I’m a better person for it,” she said while perched on the top deck on a sunny afternoon. “There’s no signal delays, no traffic ahead, no unruly passengers.”
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