NYC Commuters Ride Latest Wave: Ferries

In a region of clogged highways, commuters eschew rat race of the roads for an old alternative

Each weekday, some 250,000 New Jersey commuters funnel into Manhattan to work. With limited train service, most of them inch through a smog-choked, bumper-to-bumper obstacle course that can include a bridge (the George Washington) or two tunnels (the Lincoln and the Holland) as they try to cross the slate-gray Hudson River to get to work.

But a small army of renegade commuters is rejecting the modern-day toll of tolls, lines, and smog for a century-old alternative: They float across the Hudson in about 5 minutes. And their ranks are growing as a resurgence in ferry service to New York City continues to lure people away from the bridge and tunnel queues.

There was once a time when the waters around Manhattan teemed with overstuffed ferry boats. Made obsolete by bridges, tunnels, cars, buses, and trains, they disappeared one by one. Although the Staten Island ferry continues to operate, the last privately run ferry service was berthed for good in 1967.

But on a chilly December morning in 1986, some 20 people boarded a boat in Weehawken, N.J., and cruised eastward to midtown Manhattan on the maiden voyage for Port Imperial Ferry Company (now called NY Waterway).

A decade later, commuting by ferry is no longer a cute eccentricity. The ferry industry - dominated by NY Waterway - has become a serious player in the transportation game. It has also become an example of a private company's ability to do something that had, for the most part, been a government-run chore.

"It may be a real answer to our horrendous congestion problems," says Linda Morgan, New Jersey director for the Regional Plan Association, a tri-state planning group that recently warned local governments that traffic congestion is hurting the region's economy.

Today, more than 25,000 people a day commute on NY Waterways' ferries. And not just between New Jersey and New York. In addition to five routes from New Jersey, ferries now shuttle between Queens and Manhattan, from Tarrytown, N.Y. (25 miles north) to Manhattan, and from the Upper East Side to Wall Street.

This summer, NY Waterway began ferries to Yankee Stadium from New Jersey and Wall Street. New routes planned by the company and its competitor, NY Fast Ferry Services, include service to LaGuardia Airport, upstate New York, and the Jersey Shore.

"They've proved the power of the private sector and made it a model for the rest of the region," Ms. Morgan says. "It's another example of taking what was historically successful at the turn of the century, bringing it back into this century and showing that it can still be successful."

And, according to die-hard ferry riders, the magnificent views of the Manhattan skyline are worth the $2 to $4.50 one-way price. David Stoflett, a Wall Street investment banker extols the therapeutic benefits of a relaxing float ride to work. "And I don't spill coffee in my lap anymore."

But rail and asphalt are in no danger of abandonment yet. About 4 million people ride New York's jam-packed subways daily, and some 860,000 use its tunnels and bridges. Of the 85,000 daily ferry riders, most are on the Staten Island Ferry.

Outside of Seattle and Boston, ferries haven't been adopted in US cities the way they have elsewhere on the globe. But given New York's overburdened transportation network, ferry companies are banking on the future of waterway commuting. "It's the only thing left to do in transportation," said Arthur Imperatore Jr., president of NY Waterways, which was started by his father.

The US may be catching on. In 1995, the Federal Highway Administration gave NY Waterway a $1 million grant. In April, then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pea visited Weehawken to offer federally-backed, low-interest loans to help the company buy new boats and expand.

Mr. Imperatore's interpretation: The heck with building a bridge to the 21st century - let's ride a boat.

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