Infrastructure & Environment

Do You Believe In Ferries?

Commuting by water was all but dead a decade ago. Highway gridlock has brought it back to life.
by | March 2003

In the early 1980s, trucking magnate Arthur Imperatore Sr. purchased a large tract of waterfront land in Weehawken, along the Hudson River north of Jersey City. He knew that the property, in a bleak industrial zone, wouldn't be worth much until an extensive multi-year redevelopment project was completed. So in the meantime, Imperatore took a gamble. He started a ferry service.

As a child growing up in West New York, a town on the Hudson, Imperatore remembered sneaking onto ferries that took commuters from New Jersey to Manhattan. But after highway bridges were constructed in the 1930s and after World War II, ferries all but disappeared from the waters surrounding New York City. Imperatore's was the first privately run ferry to operate in the region in 20 years. It opened in December of 1986. Rides were free the first day. A total of 23 people showed up.

Twenty-seven years later, the business venture once derided as "Arthur's Folly" is better known as NY Waterway. It supports 65,000 passenger trips per day from Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken and other Hudson River towns into the Wall Street financial district and midtown Manhattan, at a cost of $5 one way, or $150 for a monthly ticket. The numbers have been moving up steadily for years, but in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as highway and rail access to Manhattan was cut off, ferry traffic doubled. It didn't go down very much even when the bridges reopened.

New York is in the midst of a ferry boat revival, and it is not the only place around the country that is experiencing one. "People are starting to appreciate that ferries are not a toy and not an antique," says Arthur Imperatore Jr., who has taken over for his father as president of NY Waterway, now the largest ferry company in the country.

In the San Francisco Bay area, ferries have followed a trajectory similar to the one in New York. As late as the mid-1930s, ferry boats were the only way to travel between San Francisco and Oakland, and were used by 50 million people every year. By 1941--just four years after the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge--that number was down to zero. Even the city's landmark Ferry Building, once regarded as an architectural marvel, was turned into an office building and walled off by a freeway.

With financial assistance from the city, a private company re- introduced ferry service in 1970. Traffic is now up to 4 million passenger trips per year. Meanwhile, road gridlock just keeps getting worse, to the point where congestion is routinely cited in citizen surveys as the region's top problem. Four years ago, to appease his Oakland constituents, California state Senator Don Perata began laying the groundwork for a dramatic expansion of the ferry system aimed at relieving some of the pressure on the region's roads.

Perata persuaded the legislature to create a San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority--a regional planning body on par with similar agencies for buses and trains. After an initial report recommended expanding ferry capacity more than nine-fold over current levels, the Water Transit Authority conducted a two-year study of the likely environmental and financial impact. The plan has been scaled down considerably, but it still calls for a tripling of current ridership levels by 2015--which would give the Bay area one of the largest ferry fleets anywhere in the world.

The legislature still has to approve expansion, and with the cost estimated at $646 million, and the state badly strapped for cash, it may not do so soon. Even if legislative approval goes through, Bay Area residents would have to vote for a funding package including a $1 bridge toll increase. But ferry supporters think they have a chance, and if the proposal makes it, says Thomas Bertken, head of the authority, "ferry transit would be perceived as a real transit mode. People could count on it just like they do the bus system."

Regardless of what happens to the expansion plan, the city will take a symbolic step forward later this month. The Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street in downtown San Francisco, is scheduled to reopen after a three-year restoration effort. In addition to serving as the actual transportation terminal, the building will house a major restaurant and food hall and an outdoor farmers' market.

GETTING FASTER

While ferries are making a comeback in New York and San Francisco, there are places around the country where they never went into decline. From small river towns, such as Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, to vast coastal regions, such as the Alaskan shore, and in a handful of metropolitan areas, such as Seattle, ferries have remained afloat in recent decades both as transportation devices and as economic development draws. A study by the National Transportation Systems Center in 2000 identified 224 ferry operators in the country, plying 113 million passenger trips per year.

The industry has grown since then, not only as a weapon against highway congestion but as a way to attract visitors. Cities have rediscovered their waterfronts, long derided as barren industrial territory, and begun using them for commerce, housing and entertainment. For many of them, ferries fit into the master plan remarkably well. Former shipyards in the Boston suburb of Hingham, on the South Shore, are being converted into apartments that connect up with ferry service to the city's downtown waterfront. In Baltimore, ferries take tourists and locals back and forth to the redeveloped Inner Harbor. Even without specific destinations, urban waterfronts are far more palatable multi-purpose landing points than they have been at any time in recent history.

Other than the occasional ice buildup, there is nothing to slow a ferry boat down. Unlike trains and cars, the boats themselves are actually getting faster. In 1995, the speed of the average ferry was 30 knots. Now it is more than 40 knots. And it is a lot easier to place an order for ferry boats--even to commission them--than it is to build a highway. "Ferries can be added literally overnight at a cost of millions rather than billions," says Arthur Imperatore Jr. "They can fill holes like no other transit mode can."

Indeed, it was the flexibility of the boats that made the ferry system one of the most unlikely heroes of 9/11. In the years since 1986, the New York City's private ferry system had built up to the point where it was making 35,000 passenger-trips a day. But as the Twin Towers fell, the ferries were transformed into lifeboats. With train service disrupted and bridges closed, the only way out of Manhattan was by boat or on foot. By the end of the day, 160,000 people were evacuated by ferry, including 2,000 who were on stretchers or in wheelchairs.

Without many other options in the days and weeks following the attack, thousands of additional commuters from New Jersey to Manhattan started to use the ferry as part of their regular routine. NY Waterway found itself chartering fishing boats, sightseeing boats and whale- watching boats to keep up with the demand. "We experienced a decade's worth of growth in a month or two," says Alan Olmsted, executive director of the city's Office of Private Ferries. More than a year later, the number of ferry commuters is still about double the pre- 9/11 ridership.

With service on the PATH subway trains from New Jersey to lower Manhattan scheduled to resume later this year, some of the ferry traffic will diminish. But NY Waterway estimates that half of the former PATH riders who switched in the days following 9/11 will stick with the ferries. And the private boat operators now have an critical ally in their quest to increase ridership: the city government. "We realized how important ferries could be as a tool in the overall transportation mix," says Olmsted. "We realized how important it is to have redundancy. If one mode was to suffer, you can shift capacity to other modes."

To make sure that the market can support that redundancy, the city and the federal government have begun subsidizing private ferry operations, something that has never been done before in New York City. The goal is to make sure that ferries alone can carry the same number of passengers as the PATH trains, to ensure multiple means of getting into and out of Manhattan.

WAKELESS IN SEATTLE

Ironically, at the same time ferry service is making a comeback in much of the country, it is being threatened in the one urban area where it has been consistently important: metropolitan Seattle. Washington State ferries have been in continuous operation on Puget Sound since people started to inhabit the region. Since 1951, they have been run entirely by the state government. But last November, Washington voters turned down a referendum that would have bolstered transportation funding, and in December, the state announced that it planned to eliminate all of its money-losing passenger-only service, and would devote its resources to the more numerous and more profitable car ferries.

Of course, it's the passenger-only ferries that actually get cars off the road and reduce traffic. And congestion is so bad in the area that the Boeing Corp. cited it in 2001 as one reason why it was leaving Seattle and moving its headquarters to Chicago. Mindful of that fact, state officials are trying to work out a solution with the local communities that would be affected by the cuts.

Most likely, regional funds will end up supporting a public-private partnership, similar to those used in the San Francisco area and now developing in New York City. It would be another step in the evolution of ferries into a bona-fide system of regional mass transit. "What's unfortunate, certainly from our standpoint, is that it is clear to us that passenger-only is the way to go," says Patricia Patterson, director of corporate communications for Washington State Ferries. "What everybody is struggling with, and certainly we are too, is the cost of providing the service."

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Anya Sostek  |  Former Correspondent
asostek@gmail.com  | 

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