June 04, 2010

Are Ferries In Our Future?

If you believe in ferries, then clap your hands. Sage advice from Peter Pan. But as your applause subsides, let me debunk the popular myth that the solutions 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, losing precious travel time.

DOCKING: To keep to 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 lost travel time.

FREQUENCY: Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour. 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 blizzard? 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 cost so much that the Pequot’s dry-docked the ship in New London.

COMPETITION: When a private operator tried to run ferry service from Glen Cove Long Island to midtown, paralleling a route well served by the LIRR, they shut down after just a few months because they couldn’t compete with the trains. Coastal Connecticut is already well-served by fast, efficient rail service, so why duplicate what already works?

A proposed ferry from Atlantic Highlands NJ stopping in Norwalk enroute to Martha’s Vineyard might be a viable alternative to crush-hour on I-95. But they’re talking about one-way fares of $200 per person. My biggest chuckle about the plan came when a Norwalk city official suggested islanders might use it to visit Norwalk for a vacation. Oh, really?

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, 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 realistically in our future.

Sorry Tinkerbelle. I’m not clapping.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a very well reasoned article and serves as a nice counterbalance to under-researched pieces that I frequently read which herald ferries as the sure-thing fix it to municipalities' woes.

I am involved in the ferry trade myself and have grown war weary with the expectations that many have: that the "ocean highway" can efficiently mitigate the 95 corridor's congestion. It would be a very expensive proposition indeed.

There are ferry runs that make sense however, including, perhaps even one that Mr. Cameron doubts.

Overall, however, it would be very difficult for a non subsidized ferry run without eight or nine very expensive boats to compete with the 95 corridor's existing rail service.

Thanks for a good piece.


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