Questions raised over who benefits from New York’s ferry subsidies

WARBURTON 1: The Soundview Ferry Terminal, at Clason Point, is in a quiet, residential part of the Bronx. The ferry route opened last August. It starts here, has a couple stops on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and lands near the bottom of Wall Street.

Jason Soto works as an information manager at Unicef. He’s been taking the ferry to his job in Manhattan for the last three months.

SOTO 1: I’m a happy person now when I get to work. … I get relaxed. There’s always seating. You get the view, the water, the sound of the ferry is a little, but I don’t mind that.

WARBURTON 2: Compared to Soto’s old two-hour schlep on the subway, the ferry is a huge upgrade. A kiosk on board sells beer, wine, the kind of organic chips and energy bars you’d find in a Whole Foods. There’s even eye masks for sale, although the clerk says they haven’t sold any of those in the few weeks they’ve been carrying them.

All this costs riders the same $2 dollars and seventy-five cents as the subway. Keeping ticket prices low was part of the plan when the city launched the ferry system three years ago. Mayor De Blasio says that’s the best way to serve low income neighbourhoods with few transit options.

[ALT: When he opened a new ferry line last year, Mayor De Blasio said this is the best way to serve low income neighbourhoods with few transit options.]

DE BLASIO: ??

But these new routes come with a cost. The city provides over ten times the subsidy per passenger for the ferry that it does for each subway ride. At a committee meeting earlier this week, Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who represents Williamsburg and Bushwick, raised concerns about which communities the subsidy actually serves. He questioned James Katz of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Katz’s organization is in charge of the ferry system.

REYNOSO: I know those folks that are private to commuting to the financial district probably have decent, a decent pay, I guess.

KATZ: I mean, I don’t know that we know that to be true.

REYNOSO: I guess that’s the point. Can we get that information so that we can have a serious discussion about where we are prioritizing the subsidies that the city is giving related to transportation?

WARBURTON 3: The concern is that the people riding the ferries, and benefiting from the subsidies, are not the low income people Mayor De Blasio had in mind when he launched the ferry system three years ago. Ben Fried is at the Transit Center, a New York-based think tank that advocates for improved public transit. To him, it’s less a question of demographics and more one of funding priorities.

FRIED 1: The whole ferry network carries fewer people than a single bus route in the Bronx. By using city resources to speed up busses, you’re improving transit for a lot more people than you are by running these ferries.

WARBURTON 4: But for the people taking the ferry, it’s about the quality of life. Linda Torres is a medical assistant from the Bronx who was on the ferry from Southview this morning.

TORRES 1: I actually gave up working in Manhattan because of the commute. I stayed in the Bronx for many years but then the ferry came and I said, “I’m back,” and went back to working in the city.

WARBURTON 5: Torres is exactly the kind of person De Blasio was hoping to help. But right now, it’s unclear how many ferry passengers are in the same boat as Torres. The Economic Development Commission has yet to make demographic information public.

SOUND 3: (disembarking voiceover)

Moira Warburton, Columbia Radio News.

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