New Ferry Operator Finding Its Sea Legs

After some hiccups in the first week of service, the new operator of the East River Ferry is hitting its stride.

San Francisco-based private ferry company Hornblower Cruises won the contract from the New York City Economic Development Corporation to take over several ferry routes just over a year ago. Service started on May 1 on the East River and for another route to Rockaway. Over the next year, the company will add several more routes, collectively known as the NYC Ferry.

Many riders noted that the biggest difference in the first week was the cost of the ferry. The previous operator of the East River Ferry charged $4 for the trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan. But a ride on any one of the NYC Ferry routes will now cost just $2.75.

Buying ferry tickets

Buying ferry tickets

Natalie Conn, a Greenpoint resident, thought taking the ferry to work in Manhattan felt like less of an indulgence since the price was lowered. She said she prefers it to the crowded rush hour subway, even though she has to walk farther to access the ferry.

Commuter Natalie Conn

Commuter Natalie Conn

Although the ferry is the same price as a subway or bus fare, the service is not part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and riders cannot pay with MetroCards.  Instead, it is a privately run, and subsidized to the tune of $325 million by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a massive nonprofit promoting economic growth that coordinates closely with the city, and whose leaders are appointed by city elected officials.

New York City is also contributing $30 million each year to the ferries’ operating costs for the next six years.  The city has already spent $55 million to repair and upgrade the ferry terminals.

Eventually, NYC Ferry routes will stretch across the city, with routes connecting the Bronx and Queens, and more routes in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Commuters taking the ferry to Brooklyn from the 34th Street terminal at the beginning of the second week were pleased with the new operator. “The price went down, and the boat got nicer,” said Mallory Lemieux, who commutes by bicycle and ferry from Brooklyn to Midtown. She noted it was easier to bring her bike onto the boat than down into the subway. Several distracted parents of small children also noted the ease of bringing strollers on board as compared to the subway because there are no stairs to enter the ferry.

Commuter Mallory Lemieux and her bicycle

Commuter Mallory Lemieux and her bicycle

Passengers and a New York City Economic Development Corporation staffer confirmed some delays in service last week, but said the ferries were more or less running on time now. The ferries run every 20 minutes on the East River route, and once an hour to Rockaway. Commuter Susan Barlow noted that the ferry’s shuttle bus, which brings commuters from the west side of Manhattan, was still somewhat unpredictable. She noted significant delays on the first day, but said she is happy with the first week the NYC Ferry. “The commute was 15 minutes longer with the old company,” Barlow said of her daily journey from Greenpoint to Midtown on the newer, faster boats.

Josh Knoller, a spokesperson for Hornblower, the new operator, agreed that the company was scaling up quickly, and noted that members of the NYC Ferry staff were very busy. “We’re operating 17 hours a day, two routes, adding a third route on June 1 , and another route in August.”

The New York City Economic Development Corporation expects those routes to carry 4.6 million riders per year.