By Helen Klein
Unless a fairy godmother waves her wand over the wintry waters of the Narrows, ferry service between 58th Street’s Brooklyn Army Terminal and Wall Street in Manhattan, will be suspended. New York Water Taxi, which runs the service, announced on January 22nd that the suspension would be effective as of February 1st. The company suspended its East River ferry service on January 1st. In a brief announcement, the company reminded riders that it had taken over the Sunset Park route in 2003, “On short notice, when it was abandoned by another operator. We have worked tirelessly to make the run economically viable, but the service continues to be an economic drain on the company,” the statement said. In particular, the announcement said that “fuel prices have doubled since the beginning of 2007,” while ridership has “remained constant. We cannot continue to operate this commuter service without public support.” Frank DeSantis, the co-owner of TWFM Ferry, which operates in conjunction with New York Water Taxi, said that, at this point, “Ridership is not enough to keep the boat going,” particularly in the depths of winter, when the number of people taking to the water tends to decrease. DeSantis unabashedly said that the company was looking for some sort of government assistance. “I think the best thing to have the service survive would be help from the city.,” he told this paper. “I think it should be treated as all mass transit is. That’s the way to make the service work and give proper service.” City Councilmember Vincent Gentile has already called on the administration to take action to keep the ferries afloat. “It’s inconceivable to me,” he asserted, “that a mayor who trumpets PlaNYC 2030, and talks about the city transportation network and making it better, can allow ferry service to be decreased, rather than increased. They have allowed this because they have paid lip service to the idea of subsidizing ferry service. All the ferry operators are asking is that the city subsidize the ferries the way they subsidize other transportation. “Our waterways would be the envy of any city,” Gentile added, “yet we have a dismal record of how we use the waterways for commuters.” In addition, Gentile said that he would make support for the ferry service, “A prerequisite on my part for consideration of any kind of congestion pricing plan. If they are decreasing the options, and saying you have to pay extra to drive, it doesn’t sound like a fair deal.” Gentile also said he believed that if the city hooked up a spud barge at the 69th Street Pier, the increase in passengers that would result from offering that stop could help the ferry service make ends meet. Along with colleague David Yassky, Gentile had allocated $500,000 in 2004 to pay for the spud barge, which is necessary to allow ferry service to resume in Bay Ridge; however, the city administration has never utilized the funding – indeed, “held it hostage,” said Gentile — despite repeated calls for ferry stops at the pier. “You’d get increased ridership at 69th Street,” Gentile noted. “The pier is accessible to many more people by either walking or public transportation. If they were really serious about it, they could start ferry service next week in Bay Ridge. The spud barge just needs to be floated up and attached.” In the meantime, ferry riders fear that they will be left high and dry. Heather McCown, who founded the Sunset-Ridge Waterfront Alliance (SRWA) to enhance ferry service to Manhattan from southwestern Brooklyn, said that passengers who use the ferry were, “Very concerned” about the service suspension. Adding service at 69th Street, McCown contended, “Is the key to the 58th Street service staying. If we get the 69th Street Pier going, they would have enough riders to sustain the run. It’s so simple, and the money is already there.” Both Gentile and McCown said that ferry service was an essential aspect of any emergency preparedness plan the city was developing. “In terms of emergency preparedness, we need the ferry service,” contended McCown. “The mayor announced he was working on an agreement with the ferry operators to have an emergency plan should there be another incident like 9/11,” added Gentile. “But, if they don’t help the ferry operators now, they may not be around if there’s an emergency in the future.” A call to the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) regarding the suspension of ferry service was referred to the mayor’s office, which did not return repeated requests for comment. DOT had previously indicated that it was studying citywide ferry service. This is taking place in conjunction with the city’s Economic Development Corporation; particular areas of study are the Rockaways and Williamsburg/Greenpoint. Ferry service to Manhattan began at 58th Street in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At that time, the service was free for riders, because it was federally subsidized to the tune of $378,000 each month. With eight runs in the morning, and another eight runs in the evening, the ridership was 3,000 people each day. The current service – which costs $6 per trip — carries about 200 passengers daily.