AS CITIES WITH LEGACY TRAN­SIT

The Bond Buyer - - Front Page - BY PAUL BUR­TON

sys­tems cope with ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture, over­crowd­ing and cap­i­tal bud­get strain, ferry ad­vo­cates sug­gest tak­ing to the wa­ter as a low-cost al­ter­na­tive .

As cities with legacy tran­sit sys­tems cope with ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture, over­crowd­ing and cap­i­tal bud­get strain, ferry ad­vo­cates sug­gest tak­ing to the wa­ter as a low-cost al­ter­na­tive.

How to bud­get, plan and in­te­grate with eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment goals re­mains a work in progress.

“In the long-term, they have a great deal of stay­ing power,” said John Reilly, a se­nior part­ner at law firm Squire Pat­ton Boggs. “In the short term, you have the chal­lenge of work­ing within the re­straints of a city bud­get or a tran­sit bud­get.”

In July, New York’s new city­wide ferry ser­vice reached 1 mil­lion cus­tomers one month ahead of pro­jec­tions, amid grow­ing pains that re­flect its surprising pop­u­lar­ity. They in­cluded long waits, anger from ex­cluded neigh­bor­hoods, shut­downs dur­ing pres­i­den­tial vis­its and United Na­tions ses­sions, and sub­con­trac­tor fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

“Aside from a lot of the noise -- some se­ri­ous, some not -- the big story was how high the rid­er­ship was. It shows pent-up de­mand for more tran­sit,” said Ni­cole Geli­nas, a se­nior fel­low at the Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Re­search. “Peo­ple are will­ing to stay off the sub­ways if they live along a wa­ter­front and they work within a rea­son­able dis­tance.”

In Bos­ton -- where un­like in New York, the tran­sit sys­tem op­er­ates the fer­ries – ad­vo­cates see fer­ries as an op­por­tu­nity for the Mas­sachusetts Bay Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity to ex­pand with­out huge up­front costs.

“There are is­sues of cost and op­er­at­ing ef­fi­ciency,” said Pi­o­neer In­sti­tute re­search and pol­icy as­so­ciate Matthew Black­bourn, who co-au­thored a re­port with Gre­gory Sul­li­van that ad­vo­cated the “T,” as lo­cals call the sys­tem, ex­pand ferry ser­vice.

By sev­eral mea­sures, ac­cord­ing to Pi­o­neer, the ferry is one of the most cost-ef­fec­tive modes at the MBTA, which the past two years has op­er­ated un­der a state-run fis­cal over­sight board.

The most re­cent data avail­able – the 2015 Na­tional Tran­sit Data­base -- showed the fare re­cov­ery ra­tio for ferry ser­vice at 68% is the high­est of any MBTA ser­vice mode. The T ferry like­wise has the high­est fare rev­enue per pas­sen­ger mile and un­linked trip, and has the best on-time per­for­mance of any of the au­thor­ity’s tran­sit op­tions.

“This was re­ally an eye-opener for us,” said Sul­li­van, the think tank’s re­search di­rec­tor and for­mer Mas­sachusetts in­spec­tor gen­eral.

In New York, NYC Ferry launched on May 1.

The first two routes were the new Rock­away line, with three stops from the Rock­away Penin­sula in Queens to Pier 11/Wall Street in Man­hat­tan and the East River line, with six stops from East 34th Street in Man­hat­tan to Pier 11, with stops in Queens and Brook­lyn along the way.

The fare is $2.75 per ride, match­ing a ride on an MTA sub­way or bus. The city is pro­vid­ing $30 mil­lion in op­er­at­ing sup­port per year, which city of­fi­cials ex­pect to re­sult in a per-trip sub­sidy of $6.60.

Ac­cord­ing to Seth My­ers, the ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the New York City Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Com­mis­sion, the EDC has al­lo­cated $59 mil­lion in cap­i­tal costs for ferry in­fra­struc­ture in­clud­ing 10 new barges and gang­ways; $96 mil­lion to pur­chase and up­grade boats; and $41 mil­lion to build out its home port at the Brook­lyn Navy Yard.

“The ex­pan­sion of ferry ser­vice would fill a crit­i­cal need for re­dun­dancy in the trans­porta­tion net­work, have a pos­i­tive im­pact on real es­tate val­ues and would over­all gen­er­ate wider eco­nomic ben­e­fits for New York City,” My­ers told mem­bers of the City Coun­cil’s joint com­mit­tees of trans­porta­tion, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and wa­ter­fronts.

The roll­out has come with chal­lenges. Some rid­ers, he said, com­plained of up to two-hour de­lays and be­ing turned away com­pletely from rid­ing the ferry due to high de­mand.

United Na­tions ses­sions and vis­its by Pres­i­dent Trump have also forced se­cu­rity-re­lated shut­downs.

Sub­con­trac­tor prob­lems have emerged. Kam­cor Inc., which boat op­er­a­tor Horn­blower hired to pro­vide welders and other work­ers to build the fer­ries, says it has yet to re­ceive full pay­ment for its work on the project. Hori­zon Ship­build­ing, which pro­duced 10 of the fer­ries at its yard in Alabama, is fac­ing bankruptcy.

Push­back has also come from coun­cil mem­bers whose dis­tricts felt slighted. The city left Staten Is­land, home to the iconic and free-to-ride Staten Is­land Ferry but other­wise re­garded as a trans­porta­tion desert, out of the lat­est ex­pan­sion.

“A five-bor­ough ferry ser­vice that doesn’t in­clude five bor­oughs is sort of an enigma to me,” said Debi Rose, who rep­re­sents Staten Is­land and chairs the coun­cil’s wa­ter­front com­mit­tee.

Pi­o­neer – a fre­quent critic of the MBTA – said its study put aside long­stand­ing po­lit­i­cal ques­tions about the fu­ture of the T and its new gov­er­nance struc­ture. The com­mon­wealth ap­pointed a fis­cal over­sight board after a record 110 inches of snow struck Greater Bos­ton in 2015, par­a­lyzed parts of the sys­tem and prompted calls for op­er­a­tional over­haul.

“The MBTA has some very big cap­i­tal chal­lenges,” said Sul­li­van, cit­ing the au­thor­ity’s $10 bil­lion state-of-good-re­pair back­log. “On top of the very heavy debt, when the T looks for ways to ad­dress the traf­fic prob­lem, it’s lim­ited in its cap­i­tal re­sources.”

While fer­ries do not in­volve rail and tun­nel con­struc­tion, other costs are unique to boat ser­vice, ac­cord­ing to Squire Pat­ton Boggs’ Reilly.

“You still need safe pas­sen­gers and spe­cial­ized la­bor with nav­i­ga­tional skills, and when you have two more rivers and two states, you have ju­ris­dic­tional mat­ters, and lo­cal and reg­u­la­tory is­sues,” he said.

Dis­parate tran­sit agen­cies – and their po­lit­i­cal agen­das – have long posed op­er­a­tional prob­lems in New York.

Gov. An­drew Cuomo is push­ing the staterun Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity, which op­er­ates the city’s sub­ways, buses, bridges and tun­nels plus two com­muter rail lines, to stream­line pro­cure­ment and other prac­tices.

The MTA last week ap­proved a $573 mil­lion con­tract to re­place the MetroCard fare pay­ment sys­tem with a new “tap” card sys­tem. How that could in­te­grate with any ferry ser­vice is still an open ques­tion.

“That would be nice to fix so it could be in­te­grated with the rest of the tran­sit sys­tem,” said Geli­nas. “It’s chal­leng­ing enough with­out us­ing all th­ese pay­ment sys­tems … MetroNorth, Long Is­land Rail Road, PATH and the fer­ries ... we would like to have just one card that works with all th­ese things.

“There are ways to pass the money back and forth.”

Reilly sees ferry ser­vice as an ef­fec­tive mag­net to draw young pro­fes­sion­als to New York.

“There is a great cul­tural as­pect. It’s a step to­ward im­prov­ing the qual­ity of life for New York­ers,” he said. “I think that New York has a pretty good story to tell. I’ve got to think that grad­u­ates of Stan­ford, Univer­sity of Chicago or hun­dreds of other great schools would wel­come ro­bust ferry ser­vice. They would not have to live in Man­hat­tan; they could com­mute from one of the [outer] bor­oughs.”

While ferry stud­ies have been largely com­muter-cen­tric, recre­ational use is also part of the mix.

“Peo­ple who use fer­ries also use them for plea­sure,” said Geli­nas. “They’re easy to dis­count, but we don’t have a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties for recre­ation. Re­mem­ber, Robert Moses built the [New York] park­ways for recre­ation, for peo­ple to get to the coun­try­side.” ◽

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