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October 12, 2013

Ferry Boats Aren't the Answer



During the recent Metro-North meltdown, at least one coastal community (Darien) thought about using ferry boats to get commuters to NYC.  Interesting idea in a crisis, but let me debunk the popular myth that the solution to our transportation woes can be found on Long Island Sound. 
Ferry boats face several challenges:
SPEED:        In open water, fast ferries on the Sound could make 30 knots (35 mph).  But if they must sail up inlets to the downtown areas of Bridgeport, Norwalk or Stamford, that speed is cut to 5 knots, adding to travel time.
DOCKING:    To keep to their competitive speeds, docks would have to be located close to the Sound.  That’s expensive real estate.  And what about parking at those docks… and travel time on local roads to reach them?  Again, more travel time.

FREQUENCY:         Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour carrying 800 – 1000 passengers per train.  No ferry service anywhere in the country can compete with that frequency of service.  Will travelers really be willing to wait an hour or two for the next boat?
COMFORT:             In nice weather, a boat ride to work sounds idyllic.  But what about in a Nor’easter?  The bumpiest ride on the train pales by comparison.
FARES:        The most optimistic of would-be ferry operators estimate their fares will be at least double those charged on the train.  And people say Metro-North is too expensive?
OPERATING COSTS:       One of the reasons fares would be so high is that fast ferries are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde.  When the Pequot Indians built high speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino in Connecticut to lose money, the service proved so expensive that the Pequot’s dry-docked the ferries in New London.
COMPETITION:      When private operators ran ferry service from Glen Cove Long Island and from Yonkers to midtown NY, paralleling routes well served by the LIRR and Metro-North, they shut down after just a few months because they couldn’t compete with the trains.  Coastal Connecticut already has (usually) fast, efficient rail service, so why duplicate what already works?
ECONOMICS:         The final reason I don’t think ferries make economic sense is that nobody else does.  Ferry operators (like the near-bankrupt NY Waterways) aren’t stupid.  They’ve looked at possible service from coastal Connecticut, crunched the numbers and backed off.  In a free market economy, if a buck could be made running ferries, they’d be operating by now.  They aren’t operating, and there are lots of reasons why, many of which I’ve listed.
The only place ferries are running successfully is where they’re heavily subsidized (everywhere), have a monopoly (for example, getting to downtown Seattle from an island suburb), don’t duplicate existing transportation routes (like from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson), or offer advantages of speed because they operate on extremely short runs (from Hoboken to midtown).  Our situation here in Connecticut matches none of those tests.
You already know I’m a train nut. (The bumper sticker on my car reads “I’d Rather Be on the Train.”).  And I do love an occasional recreational sail on the Sound.  But I just think it’s unrealistic to think that commutation by ferries is in our future.