Ferry Tales A Look at Future Commuter Boat Traffic

If you've ever had the dubious pleasure of trying to get onto or off of Manhattan Island from New Jersey, Queens, or Brooklyn during rush hour, you know the daily drill: traffic stopped for miles, honking horns, delays, and pot holes.

But take heart: The ferries are coming. A slew of new and revamped ferry routes to Manhattan will make their debut in the next two years.

The Boat People

In the next two years, several new ferry ports will be built in midtown, downtown, and Weehawken, New Jersey: A new floating dock near the World Financial Center will serve Lower Manhattan, the West Midtown Ferry Terminal will disembark at West 39th Street, the Port Imperial Intermodal Ferry will dock at Weehawken, and several smaller terminals and landings will expand the existing network of boat routes crisscrossing the Hudson.

Of those existing lines and terminals, dock improvements are planned for the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island, the Whitehall Ferry Terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan, Hoboken Terminal and others, including the terminal in Haverstraw, New Jersey.

There are also plans to expand ferry service on Manhattan's East Side. This summer, a ferry will run from East 90th Street to Hunterspoint, Queens, then to Pier 11 at the foot of Wall Street. The whole trip should take about 15 minutes, and offers an alternative to crowded roadways and subways.

It's Not Ferry

While real estate appraisers say new ferry terminals will be a boon to property prices and lifestyles in their new neighborhoods, some ferry terminal neighbors themselves aren't so sure. Several groups of Manhattan residents living near proposed sites in Battery City Park and at West 69th Street aren't among those jumping for joy over the new and proposed boat routes and jetties.

The grassroots Coalition for a Livable West Side is lobbying against construction of the West 69th Street terminal, home to Donald Trump's Riverside South building complex. The non-profit neighborhood coalition was created 20 years ago to stop another developer's plans for the site.

"This is the wrong place to put ferry service because there is no access to public transportation and there's no road for taxis or cars," says Madeleine Polayes, president of the coalition. She lives three blocks from the site. According to Polayes, ferries belong somewhere less residential. While ferries themselves may not be terrifically noisy or particularly dirty, masses of people coming and going through the neighborhood could spell headaches for residents.

"I'm not against having it at 79th Street or 57th Street," says Polayes. "Putting a ferry on the West Side is great. But not here."

In Battery Park City, neighbors organized recently to make sure warm weather's yachts and sailboats aren't crowded out of the North Cove area by future smoke-belching ferries. They held a rally in March 2002, and their cause won coverage in the daily media.

But according to Tim Carey, president of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), the brouhaha was largely unfounded. The BPCA oversees all 92 acres of Battery Park City, home of the World Financial Center, the New York Mercantile Exchange, museums, hotels, parks, and 27 residential buildings.

Ferries aren't allowed in North Cove, where recreational boats dock, Carey says. Ferries dock just north of the cove. In a couple of years, the floating dock will be replaced with another floating dock, three-times its size, to accommodate more and larger ferries.

While ferry proponents argue that boats are substantially more eco-friendly than fleets of buses or trains, the potential for pollution concerns Battery Park area residents, says Allison Simko, editor of the neighborhood newspaper, Broadsheet. There's the issue of smoke to contend with, and the possibility of fuel spills or leaks that could further damage waterways already fighting an uphill battle against pollution from everyday traffic.

And ferries might need to use the cove on a limited basis if demand is too much for the existing small dock nearby, says Pat Smith, a spokesman for NY Waterway, which owns and manages the Battery Park City ferry terminal. The new terminal will be able to service 20,000 more people for round trips than the existing terminal can.

Even ferry advocate Ethan Yankowitz, project associate for the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a non-profit affiliated with The Municipal Art Society and representing about 300 mostly environmental, civic, and community groups, feels busy ferry terminals belong in nonresidential areas - such as at 38th Street, where the West Midtown Ferry Terminal will be.

"I understand [Battery Park City's] concerns," says Yankowitz. "I won't say that [ferries] don't belch into the water and into the air."

Ferry-Thee-Well

For better or worse, expanded ferry service will bring more people to the areas served by new terminals. But Yankowitz and his group still support the new and proposed ferry expansions. "If you think about the cars they get off of the road, it's a net gain, [plus] the new roads that don't have to be built."

New roads aren't much of an option in Manhattan, but they are across the Hudson, where ferries are getting a very different reception. Residents over there are eager to cut commuting times to Manhattan, and multiuse developments around ferry terminals in places like Weehawken are being applauded.

In an April 8 editorial, editors at Westchester-based suburban newspaper The Journal News cite environmental and convenience reasons for greatly expanding the dock and ferry service from Haverstraw to Ossining for Manhattan-bound commuters.

The editors call it an obvious answer in view of predictions of daily gridlock on area interstates within the next two decades, and single accidents closing down roads for hours in 2002. The Journal News also cites increasing air and noise pollution, as well as the "little hope that the Rockland region will plan any better than it has in the last half century."

The paper takes a build-it-and-they-will-come attitude, while at the same time warning developers to see to it that the service is able to serve large numbers of commuters from the start, even if they don't show up at first.

"Faster boats are needed," says the Journal News, "And there must be greater frequency. Therein lies the key to river use: Think bigger. If the Thruway were just one lane, for example, how many commuters could use it?"

On all shores, the foreseen ferry terminals are being designed with aesthetics in mind. An article in the Sunday, April 7 New York Times describes the new structures in artistic terms. Unlike the ferry terminals of yore, the new ferry docks will provide views of the water and the sky through soaring glass walls, and will have attractive, well-planned landscaping and none of the crushing subway crowds or honking cars trapped in gridlock misery. Even without the neighboring businesses expected to pop up to serve commuters, the terminals will look like destination points in and of themselves, instead of some dank place to avoid.

"It's going to change New York in a very positive way," says Terence Tener, a principal and appraiser at KTR Newmark Real Estate Services. Values of commercial and residential properties near ferry terminals will rise in New York City proper and elsewhere, he says. Just how much values would rise depends on a lot of things, says Tener, but "one would expect their values to go up ten percent more. The area might not be as quiet or remote, but convenience is key. Additional convenience adds to value."

In Weehawken, "The ferry contributed to the marketing success of [residences]," says Steven Schleider, a KTR appraiser who often works with multi-family units. Throughout the local coastal area, Schleider says ferry terminals have been used as marketing linchpins for residential, retail and support development, and have become full-fledged economic contributors in their own right.

"The East River has that potential, too. It's just not that developed yet," says Tener, adding that urban planners should make sure development near terminals is consistent with the neighborhood's character.

Scary Ferry?

And what if no one shows at the terminals? Tener says he doesn't expect that to happen. "There is a desire for it to work - The Jersey City coast has developed dramatically over the last 10 years, and [The Hudson] is starting to look more like a canal than a river."

For their part, ferry operators would like people to use their boats instead of taxis, buses or cars. The Metro-North Railroad helps run services that bring it customers, including the Haverstraw to Ossining ferry line. "Our interest is to get people to our trains," says Metro-North spokesman Dan Brucker. "We think a ferry system is a very good way."

Established a year ago, the Haverstraw-Ossining ferry line has yet to catch on with more than about 80 people daily, but Brucker says, "It's a process of time."

Brucker feels that the Metro-North ferry will catch on, mostly because it's easier than the other options. The alternative New Jersey Transit train service stops at Hoboken, where passengers then take a PATH train to midtown Manhattan. Getting to Wall Street on Metro-North requires an additional ride on the subway. Another option is to take a Tappan Zee bus from a park-and-ride lot in Rockland County, across the Tappan Zee Bridge to Tarrytown Station. There, Manhattan-bound passengers again get on Metro-North.

"The problem is, traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge is horrendous," says Brucker. "The ferry opens up a really fast, open, fairly unencumbered way to get to our Hudson Line trains."

According to NY Waterway figures, the number of people using downtown ferries daily, assuming round trips, went from 16,000 before September 11 to 30,000 afterward, says Smith.

And, says Lisa Preston, a spokesperson for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a private non-profit serving New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, "you can add ferry service fairly easily. Anything that gets people out of their cars and increases transit use will have a positive effect on the city and the surrounding areas."

For all that, however, the bottom line is what it's always been here in the Big Apple: time and space. And as Brucker puts it, "You don't get a lot of traffic jams on the Hudson River."

Jaan vanValkenburgh is a freelance real estate writer based in New York.

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