Thursday, July 23, 2009

City Studying Expanded Ferry Service in Queens

By Conor Greene

Ferry service could be expanded to locations around the borough under the city’s efforts to utilize the “blue highway” and provide residents with better commuting options to Manhattan.

The city Economic Development Corp and Department of Transportation are in the midst of a six-month Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study to “support future decisions concerning waterborne passenger transportation.” The study is the final phase of a plan presented in May 2008 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to better take advantage of the city’s waterways.

Service was established between Rockaway and Wall Street under phase one last year. The second phase focused on expanding East River service, while phase three centers on analyzing potential additional landing locations. Queens Borough President Helen Marshall held a meeting on Tuesday with representatives from community boards around the borough to discuss these proposed sites, which include JFK Airport, Citi Field, Astoria and LaGuardia Airport.

“Now that we have it, we need to expand it,” said Marshall of the current service levels, which include just two trips each day from the Rockaways. A consulting firm working with the city is gathering input, with the study expected to take about six months to complete. It will be presented to community board and elected officials for review.

Much of the discussion centered on the Rockaways, where there is only one ferry stop along the entire peninsula. Representatives from that area said there is a need for faster boats and additional run times. “We have the technology and the ability to make it better… the potential is definitely there,” said Joanne Shapiro, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Rockaway). “This really is a no-brainer.”

Michael O’Toole, secretary of the Rockaway Park Homeowners Association called the current service “basic” and echoed the need for more boats. He called the fishing vessel used now inappropriate and too slow for this type of travel. “We need fast boats, efficient boats and subsidized boats,” he said.

Rockaway resident Joe Hartigan suggested that Bus Rapid Transit service be used to get commuters to ferry landings. Instead of having one run each day into the city, he argued that several runs a day could be made to the waterfront.
Hartigan questioned where $15 million allotted several years ago by Rep. Anthony Weiner to purchase proper ferry boats is. A Weiner representative at the meeting said he wasn’t there to answer questions. Hartigan later said that the city EDC is holding onto the money. “It’s going to be gone and the mayor refuses to use it,” he said. While the boat currently used takes a full hour to reach Wall Street, proper vessels could make the trip in half that time, he noted.

There was also discussion about the JFK Airport location, which is one of the suggested sites. Betty Braton, chairwoman of Community Board 10, questioned whether the site was proposed in order to serve tourists arriving at the airport or to provide a better commute to Manhattan for local residents. “That is the purpose for which the AirTrain was constructed and is impacting on the community,” she said. “In terms of the community that surrounds JKF – unless it can be demonstrated that it is serving local residents, it would not have support from the local community.”

The consultant responded that both groups were considered but was unable to elaborate.

Braton later said in an interview that “the concept of expanding ferry service in Queens has merit” but questioned whether it would be more appropriate at this time “to spend our limited transportation dollars on projects that better move the greatest amount of people to the locations where they actually work.” She suggested improving service in the Rockaways before creating new ferry routes “in an area where improvements to bus and subway service are more needed.”

Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) called the study “a good start,” adding that “at the end of the day, people in my district would benefit greatly from that.”

Donna Gilmartin of the Locust Grove Civic Association expressed concerns about parking, which is already in her South Ozone Park neighborhood due to airport employees. “Our area cannot be impacted by this,” she said. “This is going to be a drastic change and I’m very, very concerned about it.”

While his district is completely landlocked, Frank Gulluscio, district manager of Community Board 6 requested that all boards be advised of the study’s findings. “We all know that transportation is a horror. We’ll accept any transportation alternatives,” he said.

It was noted several times during the meeting that Staten Island receives about $100 million in subsidies that helps cover the cost of running the ferry there. “We certainly need that in Queens too,” said Marshall. “Our people are working class people. We have neglected the waterfront for too long… Absolutely I would like to see it for free.”

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