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City lacks data to prove NYC Ferry serves low-income riders

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City Council members grilled ferry officials on whether the municipal system is equitable at a Wednesday hearing

An NYC Ferry cruising on the East River.
Max Touhey

Despite being designed with an “equity lens in mind,” the city lacks ridership data that shows whether NYC Ferry actually serves low-income New Yorkers, city officials said Wednesday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted the nautical service as a means to connect riders of all walks of life from far-flung corners of the city, but the NYC Economic Development Cooperation (EDC) has not collected data on passenger income or home address in the nearly two years since it launched to back up that claim, officials with the agency said at a City Council hearing.

“For travel surveys where we are generally asking to understand how people are moving about, it has not been our common practice to be asking about people’s income status,” said James Wong, EDC’s director of NYC Ferry service.

The revelation came amid a joint hearing of the council’s transportation and economic development committees to explore shifting oversight of the ferry service, at least partially, from EDC, which oversees the system operated by private company Hornblower, to the Department of Transportation. Comptroller Scott Stringer has also backed that move as the ferry service has faced a torrent of criticism for its hefty operating costs and taxpayer subsidies.

The proposed shift in oversight stems out of the system’s lack of transparency, say lawmakers.

“NYC Ferry serves many high-income areas that are arguably already well-served by public transit and we know little about any demographic data that EDC may have on ridership—and this a fair question,” said Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, the chairperson of the transportation committee. “We want a more transparent system so that we know how city funds are being spent and what population we are serving.”

In 2018, 4.1 million riders were shuttled by NYC Ferry, with an operating cost of $56.7 million, or $13.83 per trip—that’s more than double the operating costs of other ferry services in the region, including the city-owned and DOT-operated Staten Island Ferry.

As of February, the city’s capital commitments for NYC Ferry totaled $114.3 million, and with plans to expand the six-route service to Coney Island, St. George, and Manhattan’s west side, the city is committing $638.5 million to the service through 2022. Passengers pay $2.75 per a ride, but the system sails with a $10.73 per passenger subsidy—in comparison, the $2.75 subway fare is subsidized at $1.05 per rider. Even after the full roll out of the system EDC expects that per rider subsidy to fall to only $7 or $8, according to James Katz, EDC’s chief of staff.

“NYC Ferry is costly because the administration prioritized equity and accessibility when designing the system. These policy choices were made with clear intention and with resolve,” said Katz. “We chose to serve far-flung places that are not well served by transit ... that all comes with a price tag, but it is in pursuit of a policy goal that I believe we all share.”

But because EDC does not gather commuter addresses during its ridership surveys, the city lacks a full picture of who is actually using the vessels that it lauds as equitable. City officials have stressed that certain ferry docks are located near NYCHA housing, but without that demographic data, it’s unclear how many of those public housing tenants are using the service.

Some City Council members have praised the program as another way for New Yorkers to traverse the boroughs, but others fear the system has come to be a luxury amenity for well-to-do waterfront communities. Council member Antoino Reynoso, who represents Williamsburg and Bushwick, questioned whether resources poured into the ferry system could be better served in other transit networks, such as the subways, buses, and Citi Bike—the later of which does not receive taxpayer subsidies.

“What I want to do is make sure that we’re talking about how we’re spending money—a significant subsidy—and who’s receiving that,” Reynoso told EDC officials. “The ridership in the MTA and the Citi Bike system is a lot more what I consider ‘equitable’ and speaks to a large range of incomes.”

Rebecca Zack, the assistant commissioner of intergovernmental and community affairs with DOT, said the agency would be “open to having that conversation” on NYC Ferry’s transfer from EDC to DOT. Katz said that shift could be possible, though he cautioned that such an undertaking would face a series of obstacles including how to handle hundreds of workers who run the service under Hornblower.

The ferry system, Katz stressed, is crucial to serving the city amid what he called a “transportation crisis.”

“Waterfront communities many of them have historically been left behind and left out of transit access,” said Katz. “And so ferries become not only a logical way but in some cases the only way to serve those communities reliably.”