The folly of fast ferries
Just when I thought Gov. Ned Lamont was getting it together to launch a thoughtful, considered “take two” on his transportation vision… bam! Along comes another nonsensical idea.
It wasn’t enough that he tried to sell us on the zany, physically / fiscally impossible 30-30-30 vision of faster train speeds, now he is (literally) refloating the idea of “high speed” ferry service from Bridgeport and Stamford to New York City.
Such ferry service wouldn’t take cars off of I-95. Those drivers aren’t going where the ferry does. And if they haven’t already opted for the train, why would they ever take a ferry?
As my Hearst colleague Kaitlyn Krasselt reported, the lure of federal funding is what’s getting the Lamont team to revisit the often studied, always rejected idea of aquatic commutation. Since 2006 I have written about why ferries will never work here. But let me remind you of the high points:
- “High speed” ferries aren’t fast. They can only go 29 miles per hour in open waters, half the speed of a Metro-North train. Speeds in excess of 30 mean higher operating costs for additional highly skilled crew.
- They only carry 149 passengers (vs 1,000 on a train) and are gas-guzzling polluters (vs clean electric trains).
- A fleet of two such ferries might make two round-trips a day (vs every-20 minute rush hour trains).
- They can’t operate in all weather.
- The fares would be at least double those of the train and they’d still need huge subsidies to attract operators.
New York State and federal subsidies of $4.7 million were wasted on a ferry from Yonkers to NYC which ran for four years. At its peak it carried just 90 passengers a day paying $8 each way… subsidized at $50 per ride.
Or consider Glen Cove, Long Island’s experience with failed ferries.
In 2001 that bedroom community just 28 miles from NYC on the Long Island Railroad, began ferry service to NYC at fares pretty close to those charged on the train. It failed after a year due to low ridership and despite $1 million subsidy by the MTA.
In the “summer of hell” in 2017 when track work at Penn station delayed trains, the service resumed with two boats each rush hour carrying fewer than 80 passengers between them. The subsidies for the July to September runs totaled over $1.5 million. That’s a $257 subsidy per passenger per trip.
In 2016 Glen Cove built a stylish new ferry terminal and dock costing $16.6 million using a federal grant. But aside from the summer of 2017, the city has been unable to find a ferry operator to resume service.
So guess what: the Fed’s asked for their money back.
Glen Cove had until January 2019 to resume ferry service or refund Washington its money. After an extension, the city Council voted 4-3 to hire a new, heavily subsidized ferry operator… not because they liked their proposal but because the alternative of paying back $16 million was even worse.
So if the Lamont transportation team is so excited about using federal money to study, build or even start a private–public partnership for ferry service from Connecticut, they should consider the consequences. Federal money may seem “free,” but if it locks you into a money-losing, heavily subsidized, under-utilized fast ferry for Fat Cats going to Wall Street, the long-term cost could be huge.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.
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