Are you ready for ferries?
Mayor de Blasio wants to launch his five-borough ferry service by next summer — so he can tell New Yorkers crammed onto subways that he’s accomplished something, transportation-wise, before his re-election bid.
De Blasio's ferries will carry 4.6 million people a year, while the subways carry 6 million people a day. Even the Citi Bikes carry 10 million people a year.
The ferries are a great idea, and will be a little fun, too, for a change. The not-so-fun part: De Blasio has to be clear he won’t give the 155 people who would staff the boats a blank check when it comes to wages and benefits.
The plan: ferry routes from the Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx waterfronts into downtown and Midtown Manhattan, with 21 pick-up and drop-off points. Ferry commutes will be competitive with the subway — about a half-hour from Astoria, for example, and 45 minutes from Bay Ridge.
Lots of transit professionals don’t like ferries. They can’t carry anywhere near as many people as subways can. De Blasio’s ferries will carry 4.6 million people a year, while the subways carry 6 million people a day. Even the Citi Bikes carry 10 million people a year.
Plus, the ferries can’t serve the whole city: Only half a million New Yorkers live within a half-mile of the new landings.
But we can’t cram any more people onto our subways — especially at the stops closest to Manhattan, which happen to be along the water.
Long Island City has built 8,600 new apartments in a decade — and is planning 22,500 more. Yet the No. 7 train is already packed in the morning and the afternoon; it cannot fit tens of thousands of new commuters.
We should be building new subways, and increasing capacity on the trains we have.
But for now, we’re not.
Paying $145 million in ferry-related costs to keep people off the train — but keeping them from leaving our crowded city — is cheaper and faster than spending billions more to fit them on trains.
The mayor has already made one critical mistake, though: He’s pledged to make the ferry fare $2.75, the same as a subway ride.
But the ferry trip actually costs $9.45 — so the city will have to subsidize each ride by $6.60. City taxpayers subsidize each subway ride, by contrast, by about $3.
The mayor’s point is to get as many people riding the ferries as possible. But why not at least try a higher price first? NY Waterway, the private ferry, charges people $4 on the East River, and $9 on the Hudson.
Many of New York’s new waterfront residents are higher-income, and they might not mind paying a premium to avoid the trains. The city could always subsidize lower-income workers without subsidizing everyone who chooses this option.
Maybe the ferries wouldn’t get enough takers at a higher price — but the city could always lower the price if that happened.
Now we’ve lost out on a good chance to experiment — and a chance to save at least part of the $30 million annually that taxpayers will spend on these subsidies.
The mayor shouldn’t make a similar mistake on what much of that subsidy will go to: labor costs.
A private company, Hornblower, will run the ferries and employ their workers, under a six-year contract — but de Blasio has already said that all ferry workers will have to make at least $15 an hour, “along with a comprehensive benefits package.”
Workers, of course, should fight for all they can get... But that’s not the mayor’s job: His is to make sure the city can afford its ferry service.
De Blasio has also noted that Hornblower “has a strong history as a strong unionized employer.”
Workers, of course, should fight for all they can get — and it’s their union’s job to help them do that. But that’s not the mayor’s job: His is to make sure the city can afford its ferry service.
To that end, he should make it clear to Hornblower that new citywide ferries don’t mean government-style benefits for workers, like huge payments into guaranteed pension funds and free health care.
Instead, the private ferry workers should get what private Citi Bike workers — who are also unionized — get: a good wage, but private-sector style retirement and health-care benefits.
What we can’t have is another Staten Island Ferry — where, last year, 48 workers doubled their pay with overtime, mostly because of inefficient work rules, as The Post reported.
On the other hand, if Hornblower does negotiate good contracts with its private-sector workforce, the outcome will be a warning to the city’s public-sector workers, including those at the state-run MTA: If your retirement and health-benefits costs keep us from doing cool things, we can do those cool things without you.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post