Glen Cove officials face a daunting number as they search for a company to operate the first Long Island-to-Manhattan ferry service since a similar route ended in failure more than 15 years ago: $257.
That’s what the Metropolitan Transportation Authority paid for each one-way ferry passenger during eight weeks of service between Glen Cove and Manhattan during the 2017 commuting “summer of hell” created by Penn Station track repairs, MTA records obtained under the Freedom of Information Law show.
Passengers paid only the cost of a Long Island Rail Road ticket.
The number has underscored concerns about the viability of permanent ferry service out of Glen Cove — a key component of the city’s waterfront redevelopment. A $22.5 million project to construct a ferry terminal, dredge and widen Glen Cove Creek, and build a new bulkhead for ferry operations ended in 2016. It was funded with federal, state and city money.
Experts cautioned temporary, emergency service is more expensive than long-term ferry operations, and Mayor Timothy Tenke said the factors that led to high costs and mostly empty seats over the summer would not recur when year-round service begins.
But city resident Maureen Tracy, a longtime skeptic of a Glen Cove-to-Manhattan ferry, said the per-ride summer cost indicates there is no way to offer a fare at a reasonable enough cost to attract sufficient ridership.
“We knew all along this was not going to be viable,” she said. “It’s a pipe dream.”
Tenke said abandoning the ferry plan is not an option.
The city faces a Jan. 1 deadline to begin commuter ferry service before the federal government considers asking Glen Cove to repay some or all of the $16.6 million in grants used to help prepare for new service.
Tenke, other city officials and representatives from Uniondale-based RXR Realty — majority partner of the Garvies Point development under construction next to the ferry terminal — meet Wednesday with officials from the Federal Highway Administration to request an extension of the deadline by at least a year. Tenke said he will argue that bulkhead installation and other Garvies Point construction work in the water and on land during 2019 could create hazards for ferry passengers.
At build-out, Garvies Point is to include 1,110 condominiums and apartments, with nearly half scheduled for completion by late 2019, providing a natural rider base for the ferry, said Donovan Finn, an urban planner at Stony Brook University.
During the “summer of hell,” the MTA last summer paid $760,000 to New York Water Taxi to operate one ferry to and from Wall Street each weekday, and more than $867,000 to Washington, D.C.-based National Ferry Corp. to run a boat to and from 34th Street.
An average of about 45 passengers rode the 149 person-capacity Wall Street ferry in each direction; 34 typically rode the 225-passenger 34th Street boat. The service ran from July 10 to Sept. 1.
Commuters complained of inconvenient departure times — 6:10 a.m. and 6:35 a.m. from Glen Cove and 4:30 p.m. and 6:20 p.m. from Manhattan — and having only a single boat traveling to and from each location.
That summer ferry does not predict whether long-term service would succeed, said Roland Lewis, president and chief executive of the Manhattan-based Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, which advocates for increased ferry use.
Multiple rush-hour ferries serving each Manhattan location would attract more riders and thus reduce per-ride costs, Lewis said. Glen Cove officials are proposing a minimum of three ferries during each morning and afternoon rush-hour period.
The fate of the Glen Cove ferry could help determine whether other potential ferry service between Long Island and Manhattan should be seriously studied, Finn said. Last year, state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Melissa Miller (R-Atlantic Beach) proposed ferry service from near Inwood, on the South Shore of Nassau County.
First, Glen Cove needs to find an operator for its ferry service. Tenke said two operators have bid for long-term service from the city. He declined to detail proposals or identify the bidders.
Representatives of the operator of the 2001-02 ferry, now-defunct Fox Navigation, said high costs and low ridership killed the service; the city blamed the operator for inadequate promotion and other missteps.
Ticket prices, Tenke said, would be close to the cost of an LIRR ticket.
“If the range is somewhere near what a train ticket is, maybe slightly higher than what a train ticket is, it [ferry service] certainly would be attractive to a lot of people,” said Tenke, echoing what LIRR and ferry riders said last summer.
A monthly LIRR ticket for unlimited rides between Glen Cove and Penn Station is $297.
Tenke acknowledged that a fare close to the cost of an LIRR ticket can only be attained with more than the $1 million subsidy over two years that RXR has promised for ferry service.
Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Canada, said subsidies are the norm for U.S. public transportation — and that tax money heavily subsidizes roads.
“There’s no cheap way to transport people,” he said.
And unlike establishing or expanding other transportation options, adding ferry service “is not a huge investment,” Lewis said. “You’re not building a new set of tracks or a highway. The water’s there.”
Jim Barker, president of Seastreak, which runs unsubsidized ferries between New Jersey and Manhattan, estimated that unsubsidized fares between Glen Cove and Manhattan would be $600 to $700 per month. The company, which examined a Glen Cove route but did not bid for one, charges $675 for 40 trips between New Jersey and Manhattan.
Tenke said city officials are in discussion with RXR for a more generous ferry subsidy, arguing that RXR is using future ferry service as a selling point for Garvies Point condo buyers and “it would certainly be in their interest to make the ferry a success.”
RXR spokesman Robert Leonard said “RXR will not discuss ongoing discussions” with the city.