When the city announced it would not commit to continuing to fund the Rockaway Ferry service past October, commuters and officials from the peninsula were mad. The ferry, launched after Hurricane Sandy, is popular and the Rockaway community saw it as a good way to jump start the peninsula’s lagging economy and spur development.
But while the ferry — originally a temporary commuting solution while the A train was shut down due to damage to the track — was popular, the city says it’s not heavily used. That was one reason why the city’s Economic Development Corp.said the cost of the ferry was not sustainable.
The ferry, operated by Seastreak, connects Beach 108th Street to Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan. It added a stop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the spring to accommodate commuters affected by the closure of the R train to repair Sandy damage in the tunnel under the East River. The fare is $3.50 per ride, but the actual cost is much higher. In 2013, the city said the cost to subsidize the Rockaway Ferry was $500,000 per month.
“As part of the Mayor’s Executive Budget, the City added funding for a fourth service extension to allow operation through October, supporting both Rockaway commuters and Brooklyn residents during the R train outage,” Kate Blumm, a spokeswoman for the EDC said in a statement. “We will continue to examine ridership and seek a sustainable funding stream that can support the $25-$30 subsidy per trip—the highest by far of any public transportation in the city.”
Because the price to travel by boat is astronomically higher than by rail or even bus, ferries are expensive and the city heavily subsidizes them to keep the cost down for commuters. The city subsidy for the Rockaway ferry service is nearly $30 per passenger, according to the EDC.
But other routes, including the East River and Staten Island ferries cost far less to operate. The Staten Island Ferry, which is free, is subsidized at just under $5 per passenger, while the city pays $2.22 per passenger for the East River Ferry, which charges $4 per ride on weekdays and $6 on weekends.
One reason for the cost discrepancy is the length of the routes. About half the cost of operating a ferry line goes to pay for the fuel for the boats. The Rockaway Ferry runs more than 10 miles between Beach 108th Street and Pier 11 at Wall Street, more than double the length of the Staten Island and East River ferries. Comparably, the cost for Seastreak to run a route from Manhattan to Atlantic Highlands, NJ — a distance of about 20 miles through New York Harbor and Raritan Bay — is also expensive. How expensive? Without any direct financial support from the city, passengers fork over $26 per ride.
Total number of passengers is also a major factor. According to the EDC, the Rockaway Ferry transports 800 to 1,000 people a day, a fraction of the more than 70,000 the Staten Island Ferry — one of the busiest routes in the world — carries in a single day. The East River Ferry sees roughly 3,200 riders a day. Even Seastreak’s pricey Atlantic Highlands route carries more than twice as many passengers per day as the Rockaway Ferry.
For the EDC, raising fares to meet the cost is not an option. Because subways, buses and even express buses would be cheaper for Rockaway riders to use, the city does not believe commuters will keep riding the ferry if fares are raised too high.
But some Rockaway commuters have said they would pay more for the ferry.
In June, 2013, Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park) and several Rockaway civic leaders delivered petitions to City Hall demanding then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg make the ferry permanent. On the ferry that day, which the group took to deliver the petitions, several Rockaway commuters said they would be willing to pay as much as $5 for the ferry, with one rider noting that the express bus costs more than that already.
What is not clear is what effect, if any, contracting the ferry out to a private company that needs to turn a profit versus letting the city operate it has on cost. The Staten Island Ferry, the cheapest to run, is entirely city operated — but as was noted earlier, is widely used and has a short route — while the East River Ferry is privately run but managed by the EDC.
But Goldfeder took issue with the EDC’s analysis of costs.
He said the city was not taking into account salaries, pensions and benefits for the workers on city-operated ferries that are the responsibility of Seastreak for workers of the Rockaway Ferry.
“Those added costs eventually make the [Staten Island] ferry more expensive to operate,” he said.
All of this isn’t to say the de Blasio administration isn’t interested in ferries. Proposals have been made to expand the East River Ferry north to Roosevelt Island and Astoria. The EDC has identified other locations for ferry service in the future, including southern Staten Island, JFK Airport, Soundview in the Bronx and Glen Cove, Long Island.
But grand visions can easily disappear once sticker shock sets in. In 2009, an earlier Rockaway Ferry route quickly folded due to high cost and low usage.
And while the EDC did extend the East River Ferry service — originally a three-year pilot program — through 2019 last summer, sources at the time warned that any drop in usage, spike in energy prices or issues with the boats could doom it quickly.