Though Others Failed, New East River Ferries are a Hit
Taken from the New York Times, By Patrick McGeehan
After several failed attempts at encouraging the use of boats to commute across the East River, city officials have an unforeseen problem: too many ferry riders.
The ferry service that the city started in June has attracted twice as many riders as its planners had expected. On sunny weekends, it has been so popular with tourists and wandering residents that some boats have been too full to take on everybody waiting on the piers in Brooklyn.
Now, with service scheduled to be reduced for the winter on Nov. 1, the operator of the ferries, BillyBey Ferry Company, is worried about having to turn away more customers. But city officials do not want to pay the operator more than the $3.1 million annual subsidy called for in a three-year contract signed this year.
“The only major complaint I’ve heard is that people want more of it,” said Seth W. Pinsky, the president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the service.
Mr. Pinsky said that the city was considering ways to add capacity but that, “in an era of limited resources,” it would be difficult to find more public money for the service.
The East River service is an experiment to spur development in revitalized sections of the industrial riverfront in Queens and Brooklyn. The boats connect Midtown and the financial district near Wall Street with, for the fall and winter, five spots on the east side of the river.
On weekdays, the boats have been running every 20 minutes during peak commuting hours, attracting people who live in new condominiums in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. But on weekends, they have been drawing a more diverse crowd of foreign tourists and locals heading to the Brooklyn Flea in Williamsburg or to Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Swen Harrington, 26, of Brooklyn, quick-stepped through the rain on Friday afternoon to catch the 4:29 p.m. departure from the dock at the east end of 34th Street in Manhattan. A broker at Laidlaw & Company on Park Avenue, Mr. Harrington oozed contentment as he described his switch two months ago from riding the subway, even though he now pays $4 each way, compared with the subway fare of $2.25.
“I think it’s worth it for my sanity,” he said, settling into an upholstered seat and laying his book, “Boomerang,” by Michael Lewis, on one of the tables near the rear of the cabin.
Mr. Harrington said he was usually one of only four or five people on the first boat leaving the North Williamsburg dock at 6:55 a.m. on weekdays. But in contrast with his quiet commutes, he added, “I’ve been on on the weekend when it was packed.”
According to data supplied by city officials, nearly 350,000 people have paid to ride the ferries since late June, far more than the 134,000 they had projected. On weekdays, the number of riders has averaged 2,862, almost double the forecast of 1,488.
The weekday riders have not all been commuters, either. On Friday evening, two visitors from Zurich, Michael Luetscher and his 13-year-old daughter, Bignia, rode from Pier 11 near Wall Street to the Greenpoint apartment they had been staying in all week. They were returning from shopping and checking out the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, which Mr. Luetscher said was smaller and calmer than he had expected.
The big surprise for the ferry operator has come on the weekends, when ridership has averaged almost 4,500, more than six times the city’s projection. On Sunday, Oct. 9, the service carried about 6,500 passengers, said Paul Goodman, the chief executive of BillyBey, which operates under the flag of New York Waterway. “The enthusiasm that we’ve seen from these communities tells us that even though the city was in some manner hoping to encourage development along the waterfront, we’ve tapped into demand that was already there,” Mr. Goodman said.
He said he had urgently been trying to persuade city officials to provide financing to run more boats than the contract requires on weekends and capitalize on the momentum. He said he had offered to add boats in exchange for a more favorable financial arrangement, but Mr. Pinsky said he was reluctant to agree to a change that would be tantamount to increasing the public subsidy.
City officials are in less of a hurry because their ultimate goal is to attract more developers to the east bank of the river. Mr. Pinsky said the ferries could “really unlock” the construction of an additional 21,000 apartments in those neighborhoods, creating jobs and economic activity.
Christine C. Quinn, the speaker of the City Council, said she had walked past the ferry stop in Lower Manhattan on Oct. 9 and “the line was huge.” The early success of the service is proof, she said, that her campaign for “five-borough ferry service” has merit.
“Things often have to be tried a couple of times and not work out, then tried again a second or third time before you get it right,” Ms. Quinn said.
A version of this article appeared in print on October 17, 2011, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Pleasant Surprise for East River Ferries: Crowds.