Ferry Days on the East River

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    In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a citywide ferry service that would cost the same as a bus or train ride, including several new routes that would hopscotch along both sides of the East River and would reach as far as the Rockaways in Queens, Soundview in the Bronx, Coney Island in Brooklyn, and Stapleton in Staten Island, where new housing developments are currently under construction.  

    Ferry service in New York City, aside from the Staten Island Ferry which is subsidized so that there is currently no fare, have proven difficult to sustain. The Rockaway link was recently shut down for lack of ridership and high cost (as much as $30 per passenger to run, with a lesser fare per person).

    I like the idea of a beefed-up ferry service, and I have occasionally used the current service run by NY Waterway’s East River Ferry, which was inaugurated in 2011. The ferry is run as a shuttle, with seven stops on each side of the river: Midtown/34th Street, Hunters Point South, India Street in Greenpoint, North 6th Street and Schaefer Landing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO, and Wall Street/Pier 11. The fare is $4.00 weekdays and $6.00 on weekends.

    My experience with the East River Ferry is mixed. When I am wandering about the East Side and want a quick ride back to Hunters Point in Queens, from whence I can get the #7 train, the ferry should be a very convenient amenity. There’s only one boat per hour, though, and the last time I attempted it in December, I of course arrived just after the last boat left. I decided to get an M34 bus back to Penn Station, for expedience’ sake and also because it was 35 degrees and drizzling. The East River Ferry does run a shuttle bus that connects the 34th Street landing with Midtown. On other occasions, though, when the weather is pleasant and my usual bad luck is not with me, I can arrive and enjoy the weather for a short time before boarding. Other lines, also, use the landing and people who are not everyday riders can be easily confused about what boat to take.

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    The Hunters Point South ferry landing has been given a complete makeover in the past year, as a new pier and shelter have been constructed around the newly renovated Gantry State Park. Formerly, you had to trudge down 2nd Street and then through several empty lots to reach the forlorn abbreviated ferry pier.

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    Things have improved mightily since then, with a new riverside walk and at least partial shelter from the weather. There is also an enclosed shelter building.

    At the present, the East River Ferry serves stops along the East River that are now being heavily developed and the ferry was instituted in part to promote such growth. However, until it is integrated more closely with New York City’s transportation network it cannot be thought of as a viable augmentation to it. From here, there is still a trudge up 2nd Street and then east two blocks on 50th Avenue to the #7 Hunters Point Station. In Greenpoint, the India Street landing is far from the subway on Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues. Schaefer Landing’s nearest subway stop is at Marcy Avenue on the J — about a mile away! — which crosses the Williamsburg Bridge anyway.

    There have been structural issues as well. The India Street landing fell into the East River one icy morning last winter — just after the morning crowd boarded the boat. Real disaster was averted by minutes.

    Though Ben Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas is dubious about the new service, and so am I in certain regards (what kind of business would a shuttle boat between Coney Island and Stapleton, Staten Island do?) I prefer to encourage research into how a new ferry service can be done; I’d think an extensive shuttle bus system would need to be instituted, and that’s the very thing City Hall is trying to lessen, motorized traffic. Bus and subway lines just weren’t built to connect with ferries.

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    Meanwhile, Gantry Park and Hunters Point South overall have been shaping up nicely; the developers have cleverly left in the old railroad tracks of an old LIRR freight spur, as well as some of the old railroad ties, as a link from the park of the present to the industrial past. Barge transfer gantries have also been left in place. Goods were floated across the river on barges, and transferred to a spur of the Long Island Rail Road at water’s edge in Hunters’ Point.

    Can the waterfront, now largely moved away from its industrial past and is now a residential/recreational realm, be integrated with the city’s transit system? We will have to wait and see.

    Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of Forgotten NY and the author of Forgotten New York and, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens.

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