On Wednesday afternoon, members of the Economic Development Corporation—the quasi-public agency that runs NYC Ferry alongside private operator Hornblower—were called to testify in front of the City Council. For about two hours, the officials attempted to answer basic questions about the ridership and governance of the ferry system, which is set to receive a whopping $600 million in taxpayer funds in the next three years. Answers were not always forthcoming.
"We don't have information on who precisely is riding the boats today," admitted EDC Chief of Staff James Katz, in response to one of several requests for demographic information on the ferry's users. "Most of our ridership, particularly in the commuting hour, are commuting into work in Manhattan or Lower Manhattan."
The question of equity—who exactly is benefiting from the luxurious, heavily-subsidized boats which offer $8 cups of rosé on tap—has become a sticking point for transit advocates and some elected officials since the citywide ferry system launched three years ago.
On Wednesday, several councilmembers pointed out that the city's beleaguered subways and buses carry exponentially more riders than the ferry, but receive just a fraction of the per-rider subsidy. (The newest model of NYC ferry boats holds a maximum of 350 riders, while a single A train can carry roughly 2,000 people.) Others wondered whether the system was catering to high-income New Yorkers, who are more likely to live next to the waterfront and, anecdotally at least, seem to be the group most often taking advantage of the service.
James Wong, of EDC, says during their NYC Ferry rider surveys the corp does not ask about rider incomes. They also don't know how many NYCHA residents use it. So the city just throws the word "equity" around with no proof that this is serving lower-income commuters.
— Vincent Barone (@vinbarone) April 17, 2019
"We need to have a conversation about where this is going," said Council Member Antonio Reynoso, pointing to a recent report that found the per-rider subsidy keeping ferry service afloat was more than $10 per-rider, and could soon be as high as $24.75 per customer on the forthcoming Coney Island to Wall Street route. Despite the growing public investment, Reynoso noted, the ferries carry just 4 million people annually; by comparison, Citi Bike had served 50 million riders in its first three years, without receiving a cent in taxpayer money.
Faced with these numbers, Mayor Bill de Blasio has consistently accused critics of missing the bigger picture about his "whole new form of mass transit," which he says is making a significant impact in transit deserts such as the Rockaways and Red Hook. The point was echoed on Wednesday by Katz, who added that the EDC's two surveys of ferry riders had showed that more than 80 percent are New York City residents.
But the councilmembers quickly explained that they were more interested in the average income of ferry users, how many of them lived in public housing, and what the racial breakdown of ridership looks like. The EDC either didn't know, or wasn't sharing.
By my count from reporters tweeting about it on here, at least a half dozen of us filed FOILs with @NYCEDC for NYC Ferry ridership demographic data. None of us have gotten responses. It's almost like there's something they don't want to tell us....
— Aaron W. Gordon (@A_W_Gordon) April 17, 2019
Beyond attempting to wrangle information from the city's economic development arm, the explicit purpose of the hearing was to explore the possibility of transferring control of NYC Ferry to a city agency with greater accountability. Under a new City Council bill, the system could be overseen by a Director of Ferry Operations (a Water Mayor?) housed within the Department of Transportation.
While the DOT has long operated the Staten Island Ferry, a representative for the agency expressed reservations about taking over the citywide ferry system. The EDC's Katz, meanwhile, said he was "open to the conversation about finding a new home, or a permanent home, in whatever place policymakers see fit."
Still, he cautioned that no change should be allowed until NYC Ferry completes a planned expansion, which will bring routes to Coney Island, the Bronx's Ferry Point Park, and the North Shore of Staten Island over the next few years. Changing the system's operating structure before then, he said, would be like "trying to drop on a horse in a motion."
The officials did not address reporting earlier in the day revealing a member of EDC's board of directors also served as a senior advisor in a private equity firm with a substantial stake in Hornblower.
As it stands, the city is attempting to purchase the fleet of boats from Hornblower for $82 million. That effort was blocked last month by Comptroller Scott Stringer, after his office found that the deal suffered from "profoundly poor levels of disclosure, as well as a series of seemingly inexplicable decisions that are proving to be needlessly expensive to taxpayers."
The city's representatives did not share any new information about that procurement deal on Wednesday, and had few additional details about the ferry's overall economic picture. Katz did say that he was skeptical the system would pay for itself anytime soon.
"We need to have a serious discussion about how we're prioritizing the subsidies the city is giving to transportation," responded Reynoso. "Getting demographic information would be extremely valuable for my advocacy of expanded ferry service."