Volume 17 • Issue 23 | Oct. 29 - Nov. 4, 2004



Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

Ferry commuters at Pier 11 near Wall St.

Ferry commuters react to Waterway’s money woes

By Jesse Greenspan, Shivani Mahendroo and Peter Sanders

When Shalini Mahajan and her husband Umesh were apartment hunting in New Jersey two years ago, they signed a lease on an apartment in Newport because of its proximity to the New York Waterway ferry. Mahajan, an associate director at UBS Warburg, rides the ferry to her office in 30 minutes. More importantly, as a mother of a one year old, she can reach home quickly in case of an emergency.

Now that the New York Waterway is experiencing financial difficulty and could potentially suspend service, Mahajan is distraught at the thought of not being able to reach her daughter quickly.

“We moved from Manhattan to Newport to save money, and we specifically chose our building because it is right across the street from the ferry dock,” she said. “I am dependent on it, and I would be very disappointed if they stopped running it.”

Other daily commuters said although they are already fed up with price increases and bad service, they don’t want to be forced to take alternate means of transportation. An informal questioning of 20 daily commuters at Pier 11 near Wall St. revealed that if there was a suspension of ferry service, it would drastically increase their commuting time.

Marina Lukatsy, 24, a research analyst at Standard and Poor’s, said that without the ferry, she would have an extra hour of commuting every evening.

“I would have to take the PATH, which means missing my train at Hoboken,” she said. “My commute home would take two hours instead of one.”

With the destruction of the World Trade Center PATH station on Sept. 11, 2001, Waterway expanded their service tremendously with the help of 9/11-related subsidies. The temporary station’s reopening last November led to a drop-off of almost 25 percent.

The company’s financial problems were first reported in last Friday’s New York Times.

New York Waterway President Arthur Imperatore Jr. issued a statement: “Because of substantial increases in the price of fuel, a diminished job market in Lower Manhattan and a greater-than-anticipated drop-off in ridership to Lower Manhattan occasioned by the resumption of PATH service, certain routes are not generating sufficient cash flow to sustain their continued operations,” the statement reads.

A similar statement has since been posted on the company Web site, and an e-mail has been sent to all New York Waterway customers. There will be no immediate service interruptions, the statement reads, adding that the company would work with government officials to continue service.

The number of ferry riders had increased rapidly at the beginning of the decade, from 29,606 daily commuters in 2000 to 64,063 in 2003, according to the 2004 Mayor’s Management Report. The report added, however, that the reopening of the PATH station contributed to a 22.3 percent drop in average weekday ridership and to the closure of the temporary ferry terminal near Pier A in Battery Park.

In an interview with Downtown Express just prior to the W.T.C. PATH’s reopening, Imperatore said he expected ridership to drop off by 10 to 25 percent. He said the loss of business would not be entirely bad since the rapid, post-9/11 growth forced the firm to lease inferior vessels.

“We literally saw a doubling in size in about six weeks,” Imperatore said last November. “You can’t build ferries that quickly. We had a motley fleet with mismatched vessels.”

Waterway, by at least one estimate, has seen ridership drop by almost 50 percent since PATH reopened.

In the past year, New York Waterway ferries have been operating less frequently. Ferries from Hoboken, N.J., which used to run every 20 minutes during peak hours, now run every 30 minutes. Ferries run even less after 7 p.m.

“The service has become pretty unreliable in the past year,” said Mahajan. “Depending on the time of day, the ferry only comes once an hour as opposed to [every] 20 minutes like it did before.”

Matthew Sanderson, 25, a senior research analyst at Standard & Poor’s, said he used to ride the ferry regularly, but has opted for the PATH because of a price increase and a less frequent schedule. The average round-trip ferry ride costs around $8.

“The PATH is far less convenient, but I have no choice since the ferry is so expensive and the schedule is unreliable,” Sanderson said.

Naydene Brickus, 45, of Bedford, N.J. has used the ferry every day for ten years. Even the deckhands socialize with her. Brickus said she feels New York Waterway used 9/11 to its advantage when it increased fares. “The company doesn’t have a customer focus,” she said.

“I’m upset with the price increase, but I’ve gotten so spoiled that alternate transportation is not something I’d consider,” she added. “I don’t buy the food, the cafe is out of the question.”

But complaints about Waterway were not unanimous. “I’ve always found the ferry a huge convenience, very reliable, and I have no complaints about the service,” said Carol Olstead, administrative assistant at a large investment bank.

Choy Myung, 28, of Weehawken, N.J., finds the ride refreshing. “It is very clean, comfortable, and the service is a scenic break from the trains,” he said. “But it would not affect my commute if it folds.”

New York Waterway’s financial problems also come at a bad time for the city. In the mayor’s report, a stated goal was to expand and improve private ferry service, and The New York Times reported that there is currently about $250 million in publicly funded ferry terminal construction on both the East and Hudson rivers. The Port Authority has also requested two new ferry services between LaGuardia Airport and Manhattan and between Yonkers and Manhattan.
Port Authority spokesperson Steve Coleman said they would try to work out a solution with New York Waterway. There was no timeline for when a potential deal could get done.

“The only thing I can say is that we’re having discussions, and they’re in the very early stages,” Coleman said.

He didn’t discount the possibility of working with other ferry companies to give them an expanded role, saying only, “We’re considering our options.”

Stacey Sherman, a spokesperson for New York Water Taxi, another private ferry service that operates in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey, said her company was certainly open for discussions with the Port Authority.

Meanwhile, commuters wonder how they would get to work in the absence of a ferry service.

“I wouldn’t take a bus; it would take too long,” said Jeff Davis, 36, of Monmouth county, adding that he would have to stay home if the ferry company went bankrupt.



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