New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer is calling on the city’s Department of Transportation to explore taking over New York’s recently launched ferry system.
Stringer’s call for the transit agency to take control of the fleet, which is funded by the Economic Development Corporation and operated by private company Hornblower, comes after the service faced a wave of scrutiny over hefty taxpayer subsidies used to keep the network afloat, and as Stringer returned a $84.5 million plan to purchase 19 new boats to the city with a list of questions after the deal raised red flags.
A Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) report found that the six-route NYC Ferry system, which transports fewer people annually than the subway shuttles in one day, receives per-rider taxpayer subsidies that are ten times higher than what NYC Transit receives per straphanger. That subsidy comes to $10.73, and is expected to surge to $24.75 per trip with plans in the works to expand the system to St. George and Coney Island. Meanwhile, the ferry’s operating costs have soared to $57.3 million annually, with city commitments to spend at least $600 million on the nautical network in the next three years.
The CBC report also raised concerns about the system’s lack of transparency; as a private company, San Francisco-based Hornblower is able to evade disclosure requirements typically required of city transportation projects. Last month, Stringer blocked the city’s plans to purchase additional boats from Hornblower after a review of the procurement contract found that taxpayers were being unnecessarily soaked for mounting costs.
“New Yorkers deserve reliable and comprehensive public transit systems, but not at the expense of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility,” Stringer said in a statement Wednesday. “The Economic Development Corporation’s contract with NYC Ferry operator Hornblower raises serious questions about the exploding costs and liabilities that the City is choosing to absorb, all while handing over millions in revenue to a private contractor—questions that to-date have not been sufficiently answered.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has fiercely defended the ferry system and its operation. On WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show last week, he called the CBC’s report a “short-sighted analysis” and bashed critics of the system.
“Anyone who thinks our existing transit system can handle all that [population growth] is somebody who thinks marijuana has already been legalized in New York state, and is smoking some,” de Blasio said. “The fact is, it’s impossible to do what we have to do in the city if we don’t expand mass transit options.”
In 2016, EDC selected a $168.4 million bid from Hornblower to operate NYC Ferry for at least five years instead of a bid that sought $31.5 million more but would have included boats, THE CITY reports. The deal may have seemed cheaper at the time, but now saddles taxpayers with $232 million needed to buy 38 boats, and with another $137 million allocated in the city’s budget for future vessels, according to THE CITY’s examination of bidding documents. The discovery only deepens concern over the system’s costs and operation.
“We must do better. That’s why I’m calling on the city Department of Transportation to immediately explore taking over NYC Ferry,” Stringer’s statement continued. “This has the potential to improve efficiency and public savings across the board—capitalizing on DOT’s experience running the Staten Island Ferry, eliminating administrative redundancies, allowing the City to keep all fare box and concession revenues, and providing a level of budgetary and operational transparency that EDC has to-date refused to provide.”
A representative for the Mayor’s office pushed back on the comptroller’s stance, touting NYC Ferry as another transit option that has helped New Yorkers traverse the city and claimed he’s only making it harder for the city to run the service by blocking the purchase of new boats.
“The Comptroller should put politics aside and recognize the necessity of expanding public transit for New Yorkers,” said Seth Stein, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office. “At the same time, the only way for the City to run the service ourselves requires purchasing the boats—the exact action the Comptroller is currently opposing.”