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BREAKOUT SESSION #3: The 6th Borough: Utilizing New York Citys Waterways

Roland Lewis, the President and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, began by stating that the Citys Blueways have enormous untapped potential for recreation, freight, and public transit. Andrew Genn, the Senior VP of the NYC Economic Development Corporations Maritime Division said that for centuries, waterborne transit of goods and people has been an driver of the NYC economy and waterfront development. From the clipper ships of Brooklyn to the Erie Canal to scheduled departures of vessels to European ports, New York has always been at the forefront of water technology and innovation. While there is great room for expansion, New York does have the second largest ferry service in the world (Istanbul is the largest), and the City remains a center for maritime trade, employing over 33,000 workers. Genn noted that EDCs focus on the East River as a critical Blueway has paid off so far, with nearly three times as many passengers as projected on the new East River Ferry service. Despite this success, Genn reiterated the importance of driving down costs (the East River Ferry pilot received $300 million in City subsidies) and seeking a ferry system free of public subsidy. Paul Goodman, the CEO of BillyBey Ferry Company which runs the East River Ferry and other routes in New York, said that ferry service is a great example of effective public-private partnerships: docking bases funded by city and state financing, and the ferry service run by a private developer. For instance, the City is installing shelters along the East River Ferry route so that passengers may continue to wait for the Ferry in comfort during winter months.

Echoing Lewis, Goodman said that his ferry service is designed to connect New Yorkers not just to their jobs, but also to recreational areas such as Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island in an environmentally-conscious manner. 100% of his ferries run on ultra low sulfur diesel. Lastly, Goodman emphasized the importance of land-based connectivity to ferry services. Because the subway system does not reach most waterfront areas, ferries must provide reliable, consistent bus connections from the water to the interior of Manhattan in order to make ferry service an integrated part of a larger transit network. Nicholas Zvegintzov of the Staten Island Ferry Riders Committee lauded the Ferrys weekday service, but expressed concern about overcrowding during weekend evenings and stated that much of the Island is far from Saint George and in need of additional water-borne transit options. Maggie Scott Greenfield, the Deputy Director of the Bronx River Alliance, highlighted how the Citys waterways can and should be a magnet for recreation and a way to reconnect communities long separated by the proliferation of highways. Through public-private partnerships, the Alliance has restored the ecology and environment of the Bronx River, making it a destination for people across the City. Councilmember James Sanders, Jr., who represents the Rockaways, said that the current subway commute can take nearly 90 minutes, while a ferry service would get people to Lower Manhattan in 35 minutes. The trick is getting the cost/trip down to a rate of less than $5/ride. Councilmember Sanders suggested that the City continue to partner with private business, as it has with the IKEA Red Hook ferry service, to spread ferry service citywide. For instance, he stated that the Casino currently being constructed at Aqueduct Racetrack could provide an additional draw to increase rider ship as well as provide a commercial partner in the venture.

Some in the audience suggested that the Staten Island Ferry should not be free, as it has been since 1997. Some audience members from Upper Manhattan expressed concerns about erosion and sink holes caused, perhaps, by increased ship traffic along the East and Hudson rivers. Genn said that EDC was aware of the concerns and had established wake zones, slow zones, and more absorbent shore lines in an effort to combat the problem. The audience urged the panelists and others to consider best practices from other cities, including offering park and ride options like in Hull, Massachusetts outside Boston and Venice, Italy. In addition, the audience said that the trip itself should be a selling point with the gorgeous views of the City that water-borne transit provides. Lastly, an audience member wondered why the City doesnt simply put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) for private companies to perform ferry service along potentially profitable routes. One reason, Genn stated, is that the upfront capital cost of buying a boat and ensuring its safety is significantly higher than for the creation of dollar van routes, for instance. TAKEAWAY: New York has historically been linked to the water, but in recent years, even as the City has grown economically and demographically, we are curiously detached from the water. While trans-Hudson ferry service/SI ferry service carry more passengers than any other American City, all five boroughs are linked by the Citys blueways and the possibilities for commuting and recreational water-borne transit are significant. Ultimately, the City must continue to partner with private ferry providers and large businesses (think IKEA) in order to identify potentially self-sufficient ferry routes and cut travel time for the thousands of New Yorkers who live near the water, but far from mass transit.