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NYC Ferry subsidies mostly benefit wealthy, white riders

Curbed logo Curbed 10/1/2019 Caroline Spivack
a small boat in a body of water with a city in the background: An NYC Ferry cruising on the East River.© Max Touhey An NYC Ferry cruising on the East River.

The city’s heavily subsidized NYC Ferry system is mostly used by upper middle class, white riders, despite being designed with an “equity lens in mind,” according to ridership data released Tuesday.

Officials with the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which runs the system with private ferry operator Hornblower, surveyed more than 5,400 riders over a two-week period in May and June, and found that 64 percent of passengers identify as white, with median annual household incomes between $75,000 and $100,000, the survey shows.

But each voyage is currently subsidized at $9.34 by taxpayers, in stark contrast to the $2.73 and $4.59 per rider subsidy for the city’s subways and buses, respectively. Those systems are also much more diverse, with a 2017 report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer finding that more than two-thirds of subway riders are people of color with a median income of some $40,000 a year.

The city has faced pushback in its attempts to expand the ferry system from elected officials like mayoral hopeful Stringer, who has raised flags about the city’s continued investment in the fleet, and Brooklyn City Council member Antoino Reynoso, who has questioned whether resources spent on the ferry would better serve buses, the subway, and Citi Bike.

In a statement, Reynoso said it was “irresponsible and unjust for the de Blasio administration to continue pouring resources into NYC Ferry when the system clearly doesn’t reach the individuals or communities that are most underserved by mass transit.” He called on the mayor to “reprioritize how resources are spent on public transportation options within New York City, so that funding decisions are made based on equity and need.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson added that there are “real questions about the high levels of subsidy, especially since most New Yorkers ride subways and buses and those New Yorkers tend to have lower incomes,” he said in a statement.

“When it comes to transportation policy, we need to focus on speeding up buses and getting the trains to run on time,” Johnson continued. “Ferries can be part of a holistic transit system, but right now we don’t even have a holistic system.”

NYC Ferry has served more than 12 million riders since its launch in May 2017, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to invest $638.5 million in the network over the next three years. Currently, the city plans to launch two new routes: one in St. George, Staten Island, and one that would make stops at Bay Ridge and Coney Island. These lines would serve low- and middle-income residents, but analysis from Citizens Budget Committee projects that they could require higher subsidies.

The city continues to tout the system, calling NYC Ferry “massively popular.” In fiscal year 2018, the system shuttled 4.1 million riders—that translates to roughly two days worth of local bus trips.

“We look forward to expanding this service in the coming months to neighborhoods that have endured unacceptably long commutes to the City’s job centers,” a NYCEDC spokesperson said in a statement. “Our goal is make this service even more equitable and continue to connect New Yorkers from around the city using this system.”

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