Rebirth of the New York Ferries: Saving Us, to Save Themselves

By Katharine Jose

When Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River on January 15, the first boat to get there was a NY Waterway commuter ferry—with commuters aboard. The companies vessels pulled 143 people out of the water and brought them to the ferry terminal, where NY Waterway employees were ready with blankets and coffee.

The most remarkable thing about all of this is that, though NY Waterway was widely praised (44 marine employees were interviewed by media outlets), no one was particularly surprised, because NY Waterway has done this before, for example, on Sept. 11 and during the 2003 blackout. The company actually plans for situations like that, and runs drills for its employees on emergency situations.

The problem with this is that NY Waterway is a private company, and technically they don’t have any obligation to carry out rescue missions, and when they do, they lose money. While it’s comforting that some entity is ready and willing to respond to emergencies, it is far from ideal that it is not a government entity.

Which is probably why, at the 2010 Interferry Conference at the Marriott in downtown Brooklyn, the first session after opening remarks was “Emergency Preparedness.” Three of four speakers were from New York City, and looking at the problem of emergency rescue situations. (The fourth was William Annand of HMS Global Maritime, who talked about using high-speed Hawaiian ferries to respond to the January 12 earthquake in Haiti.)

Tom Fox, the president of Interferry, is also the founder of New York Water Taxi, which operates mainly on the East River. (NY Waterway runs on the Hudson between New Jersey and Manhattan.) New York Water Taxi has, and does, operate commuter ferries, but despite efforts to make it a truly viable, reliable mode of public transportation, it needs to be subsidized. The city has provided only limited and inconsistent funds. (This spring, however, New York Water Taxi, with money provided by the E.D.C., will start running with enough frequency and to enough locations that it will, if all goes well, be able to sustain itself.)

Commuting by boat should not necessarily be a new idea in New York City, but in the last half-century the waterfront was virtually abandoned, host only to industrial works like sewage treatment plants. Once, ferries had been the most efficient way to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and by 1870, those East River ferries were carrying 50 million passengers per year. (By contrast, NY Waterway, which is considered to have a relatively robust ridership, carries 30,000 passengers per day.) Then came the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, and the Manhattan Bridge in 1909; by 1925 there were no commercial ferry lines on the East River.

In his years-long pursuit of municipal money, Fox has used a number of compelling arguments as to why the city would benefit from East River water taxi service. And it’s not as if no one believes him—ferry service is part of Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC and something that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn enthusiastically supports—it’s just that waterborne transportation hasn’t been a priority.

Homeland security, the idea that boats are crucial in a city of islands during an emergency, is Fox’s latest argument, and given past actions by NY Waterway, it’s a compelling one; a disaster is just as likely to affect the East Side as the West Side, and in either case people would want to get home to Brooklyn.  Also, the ferry companies lose money every time they respond to an emergency. (NY Waterway considered filing a lawsuit against US Airways to recoup the money spent on the Hudson rescue; in 2006, a tugboat company semi-successfully sued the city for losses incured when it played a part in the response to the Staten Island Ferry crash in 2003.)

Speaking about Flight 1549 at Interferry, Alan Warren, director of ferry operations at NY Waterway, said that its boats carry 30,000 passengers per day, and, “It’s great to rescue 143 people, but those 30,000 people the next day and the next night expect to get to and from work.”

On the day of Flight 1549, “basically everything was over by 8:30, everyone was cleared out, but we had to work through the night in order to put some type of service out the next day. You can’t just completely shut down.”

The city Office of Emergency Management is currently revising its maritime evacuation plan, which was first developed as part of the area evacuation plan.

“We are working closely with private vessel operators and city agencies to get that done,” said Kelly McKinney, a deputy commissioner at O.E.M. and another speaker at Interferry. “Those private vessel operators execute the job, they get the work done. They are admired in the city and they are true partners in this effort.”

In some ways, the city just does not have the kind of presence in the harbor that the ferries have. We don’t have today the kind of landings that from an emergency perspective we would like to have. We don’t have the frequency and the location in order to support both evacuations and then logistics following the job.”

McKinney did, however, say that “in terms of financial compensation for some of these past jobs, there’s a gap” that needs to be addressed.

For those private ferry operators, we are in discussions with them now about how, during  federally declared disasters, those expenses that they incur above and beyond their normal operating expenses, those are reimbursable, those can be paid through federal funds,” he said.

That process of asking Washington for help, he said, is underway.

The ferry companies “are talking with Secretary Napolitano and [the Department of Homeland Security],” he said. ”We want to make sure that when the assets and the dollars get distributed that we’re sitting at the table.”