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Cars on the Staten Island Ferry: Businsess as Usual

by Daniel Convissor
26 October 1994

Mayor Giuliani reinstated conveyance of motor vehicles on the Staten Island Ferry this summer. The pedestrian and transit riding majority are once again being shafted to provide amenities for a small number of motorists. In addition, the reintroduction betrays fiscal responsibility, belies good planning and proves just how far out of touch our politicians really are.

A fire destroyed the Manhattan Terminal in 1992, at which time car service on the ferry ended. Shortly thereafter, the NYC Transit Authority and the Department of Transportation (DOT) rationalized car, bus and pedestrian flows in the area. These traffic modifications worked so well that the City began planning the terminal's replacement without autos.

Pedestrians make up 98% of the ferry ridership. Vehicles on the ferries squeeze the passengers into the remaining space. The Kennedy Class ships are permitted to carry 3,500 people and 40 cars. Removing those 40 cars makes enough room for 1,000 more passengers. A passenger-only Barberi Class vessel is more comfortable for passengers, holding 70% more people than Kennedy Class boat with cars on it or 33% more than a Kennedy without cars. The higher capacity is mainly due to improved layout, not the 10% larger size.

The Kennedy Class boats are 30 years old and likely to be replaced in the next few years. If cars are not allowed, the new crafts can either carry the same number of people in a smaller, less expensive vessel or more passengers on a similarly sized ship. In the long term, going for boats that carry more people and no cars, similar to the Barberi Class, could induce additional ridership and with it an additional $2 million in passenger revenue. The automobile service takes in only $800,000.

Staten Island Borough President Molinari and the Mayor went out of their way to get cars back on the ferries, shoving aside many plans already in the works for Lower Manhattan. The DOT and Manhattan politicos lobbied to keep cars off. The streets surrounding the terminal were in the process of being demapped. The street removal would improve connections between the ferry, subways and buses. Erasing the roads would also provide additional parkland and a promenade linking Battery Park with the proposed esplanade along the East River. The Department of City Planning is working to expand the Manhattan Landing Zoning District to include the ferry plaza, which would require improved pubic access. Engineering for the fancy new ferry terminal underwent design competition and schematic design began. This design change order could have cost the city $500,000.

Since writing the first drafts of this article, the reincorporation of cars is not the only change in the works. The city is not going ahead with the grandiose $120 million new terminal due to financial constraints. The terminal being designed now might cost about $40 million and still reincorporate autos.

As an activist with Transportation Alternatives, I've heard "this plan can't be changed because it's too far along," so many times it makes me ill. Situations like this prove the argument specious. Anything can be done... if the people in charge want to.

Not only are the politicians not in step with the planners, they're out of touch with the public. Only 2% of the people using the ferry board in a car. Of persons traveling between Staten Island and Manhattan, 1% do so by driving onto the ferry. More importantly, 63% of people traveling between the two boroughs do so as pedestrians on the ferry.

In the grand scheme of things, carrying vehicles on the ferry does not significantly modify pollution or the number of auto trips being taken. But, this decision was not made in isolation. Add it "millions" of auto-centric choices made by our government over the last forty years and it's easy to understand why we're facing today's problems: pollution, congestion, and casualties.

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