Got 25 cents? Take a slow boat to Manhattan
Just out of Staten Island, Fred Wight pilots the huge, double-ended ferry and some 4,500 passengers northward. Ahead, through a thin morning mist, Manhattan rises from the sea.Skip to next paragraph
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As a deckhand back in the late 1960s, Mr. Wight worked the overnight shift, manning an older version of the Staten Island ferry as it plied the gray-blue waters between Manhattan's Battery and Staten Island's St. George landings.
''I remember 20 years ago Judy Garland would come down every once in a while at 3 or 4 in the morning just to ride the ferry,'' Wight recalls. ''She said she loved New York from here.''
Today Wight is captain of the ferry Samuel I. Newhouse, which, along with its twin, the Andrew J. Barberi, is the largest-capacity passenger ship in the world and a key part of the New York City transportation system. A Monitor reporter recently accompanied Wight for a day, as he piloted the huge ferry back and forth between Staten Island and Manhattan.
He reminisced about the ferry's history and his 30 years on the water, first in the merchant marine, later on the ferry. He talked of changes at the New York Harbor, which - before the decline of the great ocean liners - was one of the busiest seaports in the world.
Pointing toward the ''Emerald City'' looming ever larger as the ferry approaches its Manhattan slip, Wight recalls something else about Judy Garland: ''She said she didn't love the city so much from inside.''
At times, it can be difficult to love New York City from deep within its concrete trenches. Certainly a commuter who has to insert himself into the rattletrap subways or the bumper-to-bumper traffic of a Manhattan rush hour finds it hard to romanticize life in the Big Apple.
The ferry ride, however, seems more sane. The air is fresh, and each morning's nautical traffic along the five-mile run is a different stream of freighters, liners, naval craft, barges, and scows - some shiny and new, others rusty and weathered from long life on the high seas. Compared with the bottlenecks you encounter on Manhattan's streets and subways, it is somehow comforting and refreshing to glide slowly past these vessels.
On the Staten Island ferry, New York can be observed leisurely, approached slowly (18 m.p.h.), enjoyed in the abstract. And in this cash-devouring metropolis, the Staten Island ferry is an unbelievable bargain. For a quarter (can anything really cost just a quarter in New York?), one can ride round trip between St. George's landing on Staten Island to the Battery.
Twenty-one million passengers a year ride the ferry. Ten percent are visitors.
Two such, on a recent morning, were Elaine White and Alicia Portwood, students at the University of Georgia. They told an inquirer that they had decided to ride the ferry because the Circle Line tourist boat to Liberty Island costs $1.50.
''Where else can you get a boat ride for an hour for a quarter, round trip?'' Miss Portwood asks.
Why is the ferry so cheap?
Leonard Piekarsky, assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Ferry and General Aviation Operations of New York, says the real cost of the ferry ride is $1.50 one way. But for political reasons and because the ferry is so heavily subsidized anyway, all efforts to raise the fares have been abandoned. The city views the ferry as a tie-in between bus lines and subways on Staten Island and Manhattan; to build a five-mile subway tunnel or bridge between boroughs would be prohibitively expensive. It is costs less for the city to subsidize the ferry at $15 million a year and the federal government to provide $5 million.