Renewed ferry services could awaken LIC docks

By Dustin Brown

The ferry docks at Hunter’s Point in Long Island City sit quiet now save for neighbors walking their dogs and sea lovers catching the sound of waves breaking against the rocks.

But the wooden planks will once again come alive with the daily patter of commuters’ feet if a city councilman achieves his vision of rejuvenating the city’s waterways with expanded ferry service.

At the first hearing held by the Council’s Select Committee on Waterfronts last Thursday, Chairman David Yassky (D-Brooklyn) named Hunter’s Point and the Rockaway peninsula among five sites in Queens and Brooklyn he considers “ripe for ferry service” into Lower Manhattan.

“I think there is no greater mass transit opportunity for us than ferry service,” Yassky said before listening to testimony from a host of city officials and private interests, including city Department of Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall.

Ferries had been run out of Hunter's Point for four years by New York Waterway, the city’s largest private ferry operator, which abandoned its route across the river to Midtown Manhattan last year because it could not turn a profit.

But after testifying at last week’s hearing, New York Waterway President Arthur Imperatore, Jr. said he plans to resume ferry service out of Hunter’s Point within three or four months — only this time heading downtown, where transportation has become increasingly difficult since Sept. 11.

A new generation of high-speed ferries would provide a one-way trip from the docks — located only feet away from the first residential towers at the Queens West development — to Wall Street within eight minutes, starting off at half-hour intervals but increasing to every 15 or 20 minutes once the service catches on.

But running ferries out of Hunter’s Point represents only the first step in the eyes of Carter Craft of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, who considers ferry service a vital key to encouraging development in waterfront neighborhoods.

“The waterways can take people straight from where they are living to where they are working without forcing them through all the other crowded transportation hubs in the city,” Craft said. “Once you take a dead-end street or a burned-out pier and transform it into a transportation node, it becomes a center of activity rather than the dead-end chainlink fence that is was before.”

Craft’s group, which advocates waterfront development, considers five sites along the borough’s East River waterfront to have potential as ferry stops — Vernon Boulevard, Queensbridge, Hallet’s Cove, Astoria Park South, and 20th Avenue.

Although service across the Hudson River is profitable for New York Waterways, interborough service tends to attract fewer passengers because subways already provide a form of rapid transit that is not available for Jersey commuters.

Seth Bornstein, the borough’s director of economic development, said in his testimony that the office of Borough President Helen Marshall “implores the city to expand ferry service to and from Queens.”

Bornstein said he supports city subsidies to help get the ferry service off the ground.

“Especially in the beginning stages, you need to have that little push,” he said.

The theory is that once ferries begin operating with the aid of a government subsidy, the service will encourage development and gradually draw more passengers until the city’s help is no longer needed.

“There are routes that a private operator unsubsidized would not begin today,” Yassky said. “But if the city gives start-up money, those routes could easily be sustainable” a few years down the road.

Imperatore, who was quick to point out that none of his company’s ferry routes receive an operating subsidy from the city, said a revenue guarantee from the city, which would be phased out over time, would encourage private operators to start ferry service in areas that would not initially be profitable.

While enthusiastic about the prospect of adding ferry service, the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives does not support government subsidies for ferry companies because it may take funding away from subways and buses, which serve far more people.

“At this time we do not support government operating subsidies for ferries, because this is an era in which the city and the state’s subsidies for public transit are constantly under threat,” said John Kaehny, the group’s executive director. “And no matter how you slice it, the bang for buck that you get from subways is so much greater than ferries.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown at 229-0300, Ext. 154, or by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com.