Suppressed demand on the Hudson River ferries

The Hudson River ferries, unlike most of the transportation system in New Jersey, is privately run.  It’s main goal isn’t serving the public, or making sure the state’s transportation network runs smoothly.  It’s meant to make money.

New York Waterway charges high fares.  really high fares.  The cheapest ferry fare is $6, and they can cost more than $10 to ride, depending on the route.

What if the ferries weren’t operated for profit?  What if they had the same motivations as a transit agency- moving people at an affordable cost?

NJ Transit ferries would charge a significantly cheaper fare, close to what NJT charges for its trans-Hudson buses or trains. Let’s assume that the NJT ferry fare would be $3.50- equal to the bus fare from Jersey City/Hoboken/Weehawken to New York, instead of the $6-10 charged by New York Waterway.

Right now, high ferry fares are causing significant suppressed demand.  Many people are choosing not to take the ferry because of how expensive it is, even if it makes sense for their commutes.  Many people can’t afford a $270 dollar monthly ferry pass from Hoboken to Midtown, so they opt for the $98 dollar bus pass.

As of 2013 New York Waterway and its subsidiary BillyBey Ferry Comany carry about 30,000 passengers across the Hudson River on a good weekday.  What would the ridership be if fares were cut in half?  60,000? Or even more?

New York Waterway provides a luxury service, a comfortable travel option with plenty of seats and a great view. It’s even advertised as a high-class ride.  If ferries are to become a true mode of mass transportation (for the masses, not just the high-end market), some routes would have to be jettisoned.  For instance, the ferry between W. 39th Street and Lincoln Harbor has its New Jersey terminal inside a gated community. The service is for “tenants and guests only.”

Publicly operated ferries would probably run on fewer routes, but they would carry far more passengers.

Another advantage is that the ferries could be coordinated with other modes.  Right now, train and ferry schedules don’t always link up at Hoboken Terminal. The terminal was originally designed for train-to-ferry transfers, but currently most riders head straight to the PATH, jamming it at rush hour.  More of those people could be diverted to the ferry if there was a joint ticketing option.  If both services were operated by NJ Transit, a passenger could buy a ticket directly from, say, Ridgewood to Wall Street.  With the ever-increasing crowding at Penn Station, this would definitely be a good thing.

Not all transit modes are created equal.  In New Jersey, the commuter trains, PATH, and (most) buses are subsidized extensively.  They can rely on public moneys in order to provide more service and transport more people.  But the ferries can’t.  They are limited by the fares they take in and the investment requirements of private capital.

Public subsidy would open the Hudson River ferries to thousands and thousands of new riders. When a rail tunnel shuts down and the Port Authority becomes massively over capacity, this might be the solution we need.

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