Glen Cove officials say that despite “disappointing” ridership numbers during the temporary ferry service to Manhattan that ended Sept. 1, they are confident the city will attract an operator for the long-planned restoration of year-round ferry service from Long Island.
The city had initially envisioned the summer ferries as a test run for long-term service. But with some boats traveling at less than 15 percent of capacity, and amid complaints from commuters about inconvenient and insufficient launch times, city officials and transportation experts now say the eight weeks of ferry commuting were a poor predictor of how popular permanent service could be.
“It can’t tell you anything about what full-level service would give you,” said Norman Garrick, a University of Connecticut engineering professor and expert on public transportation.
Successful public transportation gives riders choices and flexibility, and offering only one daily boat to and from each Manhattan destination — Wall Street and 34th Street — did not do that, said Garrick, currently a visiting professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority provided the ferry service from Glen Cove as an alternative to reduced LIRR service during Penn Station construction.
It was the first water service from Glen Cove since a 2001-2002 ferry to Manhattan was scrapped because of what now-defunct operator Fox Navigation said were high costs and low ridership and what Glen Cove officials said were Fox missteps. City officials have been pushing for permanent service since shortly after Fox Navigation left.
The city plans to send out a request for proposals to potential ferry operators in the next few weeks, Deputy Mayor Barbara Peebles said. Glen Cove will require a minimum of three weekday morning stops each at Wall Street and 34th Street, with an option for weekend recreational service, she said.
Last year, the city sent out requests for proposals for ferry operators but, despite initial interest, no company submitted a bid.
Executives with three ferry companies — including the firm that operates New York City ferries and another that ran one of the Glen Cove MTA ferries — told Newsday they are looking into a bid this year.
Glen Cove wants service to begin no later than January 2019, the deadline for Glen Cove to begin commuter ferry service before the federal government considers asking the city to repay ferry-related grants, said Federal Highway Administration spokeswoman Nancy Singer.
But Glen Cove resident Maureen Tracy said she worries city taxpayers will end up subsidizing the boats, even though city officials insist that won’t happen. Tracy questions how the ferries could attract enough riders year-round if so few people commuted by boat during warm weather and LIRR track closures.
Among MTA ferry passengers and those who rode the train from Glen Cove’s three LIRR stations, the chief complaint about the temporary ferry was the afternoon return times: 4:30 p.m. from Wall Street and 6:20 p.m. from 34th Street.
“They made a ridiculous schedule,” Rocco Basile, 57, said as he rode the 7:29 a.m. LIRR train from Glen Street on a recent morning, even though he had hoped to take the ferry. “Ninety percent of the world works 9 to 5,” said Basile of Glen Cove.
William Goode, 41, said that despite an earlier-than-desired 6:35 a.m. ferry departure time from Glen Cove, he drove from Massapequa several times to take the ferry to his Manhattan job because it was more pleasant and reliable than the LIRR.
“This is a much better ride than taking the train and going through tunnels,” he said.
The pricing for the temporary ferry was a valid LIRR ticket.
The cost of permanent ferry service remains unknown. Jim Barker, president of Seastreak, which runs ferries from New Jersey to Manhattan, estimated an unsubsidized ferry ticket from Glen Cove to Manhattan would cost about $600 a month, more than double the $297 monthly LIRR ticket from Glen Cove.
Peebles said it’s impossible to know the fare until the city receives formal proposals, but she said even though it probably will be “a little more” than the LIRR, “it’s not going to be $600.” Non-city subsidies are one possibility to keep prices down, she said.
Uniondale-based developer RXR Glen Isle Partners, which is building the huge mixed-use Garvies Point development next to the ferry terminal, called the ferry an amenity for future residents and has agreed to pay a up to $1 million to subsidize it for as much as two years.
The federal government rarely subsidizes public transportation operating costs, but through grants it did pay for nearly three-quarters of the $22.5 million price tag for constructing a ferry terminal, dredging and widening Glen Cove Creek, and building a new bulkhead for the ferry, Peebles said. The city paid most of the rest.
MTA officials declined to comment on whether the agency would consider subsidizing a Glen Cove ferry.
New York City pays a subsidy that averages $6.60 per rider to keep fares of its expanding inter-borough ferry service at $2.75 each way, city Economic Development Corp. spokeswoman Stephanie Baez said, although most New York City routes are shorter than Glen Cove to Manhattan.
Operating costs depend on passenger load. The two boats used over the summer had a combined capacity of 374 passengers.
The MTA declined to release ridership or cost numbers for the temporary service, although the agency eventually will report them, spokesman Aaron Donovan said.
Another unknown is how much space will be available for ferries to dock in Manhattan during peak commute hours.
Donovan said the few ferry options this summer were a result of “a combination of limited dock slots in Manhattan and challenges finding vessels during the peak season on short notices.”
The New York City Department of Transportation declined to say how many slots are available in peak commute hours.
Multiple peak-hour landing times are critical to give commuters options, experts said.
Commuters need to know that “if you miss a boat, there’s another boat coming,” said Roland Lewis, president and chief executive of the Manhattan-based Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, which supports increased use of commuter ferries.