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Ferry service spinning its wheels

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The New York Water Taxi Service is carrying more than water.

The privately-held transportation company is operating at a deficit and the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is unsure whether it will be able to provide additional subsidies to support the transit service in the foreseeable future.

In an interview with this paper, Water Taxi CEO Tom Fox indicated that his company was negotiating with the city and that he hoped to continue water taxi service along the East River, but that at a certain point, the system may be untenable and service could cease.

“We believe in the service. If we didn’t we wouldn’t have been running it for three years,” said Fox. “I believe the redevelopment of the waterfront rezoned by the city needs alternative transportation to be successful, and I believe the existing population needs transportation too because those options are limited.”

According to EDC spokesperson David Lombino, a subsidy in the hundreds of thousands of dollars was given to the transit company last year and ferry service representatives are asking for hundreds of thousands more. During the months of June, July and August 2009, there were 4,350 riders per month on average, though those numbers are higher than the 2,315 riders per month who used the service between November 2008 and January 2009.

“We’re more interested in getting something up and runable that is more sustainable than the current system,” said Lombino. “The ridership is low. That’s an issue. It’s something we’re committed to doing and getting right. We don’t’ want to keep plugging gaps.”

One solution could be more stops along the waterfront. Ferry terminals are expected to be constructed in 2011 at the end of North 6th Street in Williamsburg, India Street in Greenpoint, and at the Water Taxi Beach in Long Island City. It is something Toll Brothers representative David Von Spreckelsen, whose clients live in a condominium building not far from the proposed northside ferry terminal, would like to see.

“Of course we would love to have the ferry there as an alternative to the subway and other modes of transportation to get to and from the waterfront,” said Von Spreckelsen. “It’s a great way to commute and a great way to get into Manhattan.”

It is something that city officials would like to see happen too. Council member David Yassky (D-Williamsburg) believes that public transportation is “almost impossible without a subsidy” and that a private company should not be expected to sustain losses indefinitely.

“Any urban planner will tell you that one of the best investments a city can make is in expanding its transportation network. In New York, with our built-in ‘blue highways,’ ferries are our easiest, cheapest and greenest option for expanding mass transit access to the waterfront,” said Yassky.

Transportation advocates such as Community Board 1 Transportation Chair Teresa Toro notes that the city must consider multiple modes of transportation and the biggest problem of the ferry service is financial. She believes that the service must not be dismissed outright even thought it carries fewer commuters than the subway.

“Right now it’s not viable for the average Williamsburg commuter mainly because of the cost: a water taxi monthly pass costs twice as much as LIRR and MetroNorth monthly passes, a clear example of the benefits of government subsidy, and of course not everyone has easy access to the waterfront, even if the service were not threatened,” said Toro.

Her colleague on CB 1, Ward Dennis, however, puts some of the responsibility for the service at the feet of condo owners.

“Developers and condo owners who are benefiting from this should put in money to get this thing up and running,” said Dennis. “They don’t have enough commuters to make this a viable operation, and they need to run it at a loss for a while to get commuters on board, literally and figurative­ly.”

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