Times blogger Jennifer 8. Lee (I just wanted to type her middle initial) links to a Times article from 2005 describing the ferry companies' long struggle to make profits. I don't have the figures handy, but I'd be surprised if the ferry service to Long Island City has been profitable since the Long Island Railroad started running into Penn Station.
If anyone wonders why the ferries are losing money, and what could be done about it, all they have to do is try to use them. Let's talk about the best commute right now, and I'll focus on the Long Island City route. Imagine a woman who lives in the CityLights building in LIC and works in the office building at 55 Wall Street. Even she faces a relatively unpleasant walk to the ferry. She's two blocks from the ferry entrance, but for most of those two blocks there are no sidewalks along the west side of Second Street, so she has to cross over to the east side. Once she gets through the gates of the ferry property, it's another two blocks where the walkways are inconsistent and dump her in the middle of a half-empty parking lot where she has to constantly look over her shoulder to make sure nobody's speeding in. At least her arrival at Wall Street is relatively uneventful.
The next easiest commute is probably a guy coming from Long Island or eastern Queens who takes the train to the LIC terminal, and walks across the street to the ferry entrance. Assuming that he doesn't have very far to go on the railroad and works on Wall Street or the World Financial Center (the ferry used to go there, but it doesn't any more), he's in pretty good shape.
That's about it for convenient commutes. Once you get people who don't take the LIRR or live in Queens West, they're coming in on the #7 train to Vernon-Jackson, which is two long blocks further than Citylights, meaning over ten short blocks from subway to ferry dock. The nearest bus stop is in the same place, and the nearest stops on the E, V and G trains are even further. That's fine for an occasional recreational trip, but it just doesn't work for a daily commute.
The ferries are also limited by what's on the Manhattan side. As I said, if you work in Wall Street or the WFC you're in great shape, but most other job sites are more difficult. At 34th Street, the only employers that could actually be described as convenient to the ferry dock are the Heliport and the Water Club. There's a bunch of employers nearby, including the NYU Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital, but they're not convenient. The biggest obstacle is the singularly unpleasant intersection of 34th Street with the FDR Drive, which also includes a lane or two of cars coming from Waterside Towers and the Water Club. Anyone who's ever been there will know exactly what I mean.
The Water Taxi dock in LIC has a large parking lot. What about commuters who drive there and park? The problem is that anyone who drives to the dock has already driven past at least one bridge or tunnel to Manhattan. Why not just keep going to work? The only reason would be if they could step off the ferry and be at work, and that's a relatively small group of people.
Up to now I haven't mentioned schedules, because they've varied a lot over time. In the past there have been more ferries, but now there are just four ferries in the morning and four in the evening. There are only four LIRR trains (inbound only) in the morning and two (outbound only) in the evening that are at all compatible with the ferry schedules. Some connections are very tight so that if either the train or the boat is late the commuter is stuck in Hunters Point, and some require up to half an hour's wait. As far as I know there is no communication between ferry operators and LIRR personnel.
There is a midday and weekend "hop on/hop off" ferry, but it only runs during the summer and has a completely different route from the commuter ferries.
The last problem is the fare structure. For commuters from LIC, it ranges from $7 to $11 per day, depending on whether they're going to 34th Street or Wall Street, and whether they buy a ten-trip book or a monthly pass instead of buying single tickets. This is on top of the cost of a Metrocard or LIRR ticket. Considering the amount of effort spent on fighting an $8 charge that would be paid by a tiny portion of commuters, it's not surprising that these fares aren't exactly bringing the crowds in.
So what if the city and the ferry operators actually had the will and the power to do something about this? What would it take to make ferry transportation out of LIC work?
The first thing is operating assistance. In the Times article from 2005, Brooklyn Councilmember David Yassky was quoted as saying, "Mass transit doesn't work if it's not subsidized." I think he's overstating it a bit: there are a handful of examples of profitable mass transit, the best one being the New Jersey vans, but even those are subsidized with public roads. The ferries get subsidies in the form of shipping infrastructure like the Coast Guard and the terminals that are often built for them by public agencies, but that's clearly not enough to compete with the road and parking subsidies that many driving commuters get, or even the subsidies for train and bus service. If we want ferry service to work, we need to commit to providing a certain baseline of funding.
In exchange for that funding, we can require a certain minimum level of service. Peak-direction rush hour service is not real transit, and should only be implemented if it's necessary to avoid a complete shutdown. People need the flexibility to go home in the middle of the day if necessary, or to get to work late. Every subsidized ferry line should offer at least hourly service between 8AM and 10PM, seven days a week. Yes, seven days a week. Of course there aren't going to be "recreational riders" from Hunters Point in January - but there may be some people using the ferry for family outings on the weekends, if it's convenient. The government should be willing to pay for this level of service to be offered at reasonable fares, if necessary.
Now I don't want to see my tax money going to run empty boats, so we need to do what's necessary to make it convenient to use the boats - on both ends. The New York Waterway example is very instructive here. Imperatore didn't expect thousands of people to want to go from the dock in Weehawken to the West Side Highway; he paid for a fleet of buses, and your ferry ticket includes the bus ride to the dock in New Jersey and another bus from Pier 79 to wherevery you need to go in Manhattan. And those buses do cover a large chunk of Manhattan. Why didn't the Water Taxi people make a deal with the Emperor to have some of his buses pick people up at the East 34th Street dock? Why didn't NY Waterway do that when they had the franchise? Why didn't Water Taxi run their own buses?
For the ferry to work, it needs to have that network of buses in Midtown Manhattan. It also needs a network of buses going to the Hunters Point dock from all the LIC subway lines and the major residential centers in the area (Greenpoint, Blissville, Sunnyside, Dutch Kills, Ravenswood and Queensbridge). These buses could be owned and operated by the ferry company, or shared with NY Waterway, or even the MTA - that's another way that government officials can show that they're serious about making ferries work. At a minimum there needs to be a subway circulator in LIC, a bus running across 34th Street in Manhattan, and a bus that serves the UN, the hospitals and other job sites on First and Second Avenues. The LIRR should offer at least hourly service in both directions between the LIC terminal and Jamaica, at least 8AM to 10PM, seven days a week.
Finally, and this is really a no-brainer for anyone that thinks for a minute, pedestrian access to the LIC docks needs to feel at least as safe, convenient and comfortable to walk to as Pier 11 in Manhattan. That means wide, comfortable, well-lit sidewalks (that aren't blocked by police cars) all the way from the Vernon-Jackson station to the dock on Hunters Point, and a safe, calm crossing of the FDR exit in Manhattan.
Sidewalks, buses, trains, hourly service, reasonable fares: we're talking about a lot of money here. But I'll leave you with this quote from, of all places, a Fark comment thread about Amtrak ridership. Firefly212 writes:
I find most of the critics of Amtrak are people who are of the mindset that if doing something half-assed for a long time doesn't work, then surely it simply can't be done.
What Firefly212 says about Amtrak is true of just about any government investment in mass transportation. Since 1910, the only person who hasn't been running the ferries half-assed is Arthur Imperatore. The Water Taxi people have clearly put some effort in, but the pedestrian environment, the lack of buses? Half-assed. The government support? Totally half-assed. Let's do this fully-assed or not at all.