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Fifteen years ago, the Koch Administration, with a push from a private ferry operator, helped launch the modern era of private ferry services in New York harbor. Five years ago, the Giuliani Administration pushed hard to spur new private ferry services to Yankee Stadium. The city has substantially completed a multi-million dollar reconstruction of Pier 11. Pier 11 is the Wall Street hub for the harbor's private ferry operators. At present, there are four private operators and over 30,000 passenger trips a day.

Support, whether legal, administrative or infrastructural, for the activities of the private ferry companies has been a hallmark of the "private" ferry revival of recent years. In addition to New York City, the State of New York, the Port Authority and the State of New Jersey have partnered with these and other private ferry companies.

Into this public/private froth comes the Harbor Ferry Loop proposal. This idea, a vision from the non-profit Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, calls for a fleet of eight vessels, each with a capacity for 99 passengers, circling the upper harbor as a commuter service on weekdays and as a recreational/cultural loop on weekends. The loops would connect sixteen waterfront "commuter" stops and over twenty harborside cultural landmarks. Key transfer stops would include lower Manhattan, Exchange Place in New Jersey and St. George in Staten Island. These stops connect to mass transit hubs. The proposed one-way fare would be $1.50.

These loops highlight a truism held by waterfront advocates that at its heart the city is a maritime metropolis. The loops would allow New Yorkers, people from New Jersey and millions of visitors to discover hidden wonders of the region's shores beyond the crowded straight line that links the Battery to the Statue of Liberty. Many of the proposed stops should be major destination sites and would be if they were easier to get to. Such sites include Governor's Island, Fort Wadsworth, Liberty State Park and Fulton Landing. National Park Service sites outside these loops including Riis Park, Fort Tilden and Sandy Hook in New Jersey might one day also be connected by ferry.

These waterborne connections open the promise of linking local residents to a city much larger than they now know. In the same way that the subway, a century ago, linked a newly consolidated city to its distant parts, ferries at the millennium can unite the metropolis with its far-flung maritime extensions.

Of course, these visions require money. The proposal of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance assumes outside assistance of about $20 million to finance the vessels and build the landings. It also assumes an operating subsidy to augment the proposed fare. Unlike most other ferry proposals where private companies sought limited public assistance, the Alliance's plan has no private capital at this stage.

Sounding Off

At present, the city and the region subsidize many transportation services. From the heavily subsidized PATH trip to the barely subsidized subway trip to the lavishly subsidized commuter express bus trip and the free Staten Island ferry trip, New York, New Jersey and the Port Authority frequently contribute both operating and capital funds.

While subsidies sometimes do go toward bottomless pits, they can also be used to stimulate market creation or serve as catalysts for development. Successful efforts may depend on the exact mix of public assistance and private interest. In the Yankee Stadium service, the private operator provided the boats and took the economic risk. The city and state provided access and paid for many physical improvements.

If the Harbor Loop is built will they come? A market study is needed. Who would use such a service? How often? At what price? Will they use it in the winter? Will they overuse it in the summer? Are loops the way to go?

Private investment will likely follow a firm belief in a significant market of future users. The Visitor's Bureau, the Port Authority or the ferry industry should fund the study. If the right questions are asked, the harbor's potential for recreation, culture, transport and commerce will match a considerable untapped market demand.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

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