Ferries Could Save Tax Payers from the Second Avenue Subway

A decade ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority held public meetings at the old Hunter College School of Social Work to prepare East Side residents for the construction of the Second Avenue Subway, and for the destruction and damage to homes and businesses. Mysore Nagaraja, then president of MTA Capital Construction Company, nearly wept as he described the plight of those of us living east of Third Avenue in the 70s who had to walk 20 or 30 minutes to reach the subway. That was why, he told us, construction of the Second Avenue was so important and inconvenience was to be darned. He was so aggrieved about our situation and so agonized over those who live around York Avenue and 77th Street, that he advocated construction of multiple entrances on the north, south, east and west sides of every station so that after years of suffering we would not have to cross one more avenue, or tarry at one more traffic light, before we could descend to a train each day.

As it turns out, residents of the far East 70s or 80s will continue to be under-served by train service, even if the Second Avenue Subway is ever completed. There is no stop between the 86th Street and 72nd Street stations. Michael Horodniceanu, Nagaraja’s successor, told me during neighborhood tour of the underground construction this is intended to speed travel on the line. I had suspected that plans to construct a station in the high 70s were dropped because a developer pal of former MTA chairman Peter Kalikow was building a new high-rise on the spot, but clearly I was wrong.

Although Second Avenue Stubway, when it opens, will not shave much time from the commute of those living on East 79th Street and First Avenue or York, a more efficient and cost-effective service for them and everyone else is on the way.

The East River, the greatest transit artery in New York City, is one that few travel today, but the New York City Economic Development Corp. recently proposed five new ferry routes that would exploit its possibilities. Such service would connect waterfront neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx to Manhattan and to each other. It would also improve transit from midtown to the Lower East Side and Wall Street.

Current ferry service on the East River has proven to be a success. It served 1.2 million total riders last year, some 3,200 riders daily. Fare is $4.00 each way, and like the rest of public transit, it is subsidized. The city pays $2.22 or 55 percent, for each one-way trip, compared to 62 cents, or 35 percent, for the subway, which because of the varying fare structures averages $1.73 per trip. Increased use of ferries would make the water system more cost-effective.

Currently there is a pier at 34th Street on Manhattan’s East Side and shuttered one near Gracie Mansion at East 90th Street. An additional one in the mid-70s has been on the drawing board. Happily, construction of ferries would also cost taxpayers far less than the subway. A NYCETD report notes that the extension of the 7 train cost $1.6 billion per mile served, compared to the cost of construction of infrastructure serving the East River Ferry at $8 million per mile served. Unlike busses, ferries don’t travel on congested roads and bridges. Based on what figures I can glean from MTA reports and a helpful 2010 post on the 2nd Ave. Sagas blog, I calculate that construction of the Second Avenue subway ballooned to a cost of  $2.75 billion per mile.

Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway will end at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street and is supposed to be operational by December, 2016 after much delay. Increased ferry routes, and the relatively new Select Busses on First and Second Avenue that have improved surface transit, should mean that other Manhattan neighborhoods will not be needlessly and pointlessly blighted at enormous cost to taxpayers.

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One thought on “Ferries Could Save Tax Payers from the Second Avenue Subway

  1. Kathie: This is fascinating. We are dealing with the need for new subways here in Toronto, but I really don’t believe we’ll ever get them. They want to have more above ground transit–rail. Too bad the above ground they’ve got is inefficient because of the weather!

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