“For me it’s the summer of heaven,” said Reid Pauyo, 53.
Pauyo was sitting contentedly last Thursday atop the new rush hour ferry from 34th Street to Glen Cove, Long Island. The Stevie Wonder song “Don’t you worry ’bout a thing” was playing softly over speakers on the enclosed top deck. The bluffs and beaches of Great Neck and Port Washington breezed by, the lights of the Gatsby mansions just winking on. Pauyo gestured magnanimously. He was the only person in the echoing compartment.
With necessary Amtrak repairs causing what Gov. Andrew Cuomo called a “summer of hell” now upon us, the MTA has been challenged to make life as un-miserable as possible for commuters traveling into and out of the city in the face of canceled or rerouted LIRR trains. Alternative travel plans were drawn up, including the temporary four-times-daily ferry. The hellscape started a week ago, and then: mostly nothing.
Can commuters escape too much inconvenience?
New York City-bound trains were more crowded than usual last week. There were confused Long Islanders rerouted to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, but few nightmares yet. Riders are MTA-trained enough to know that things could get worse, dispensation provided by wise preparation and the fact that Penn Station work is only beginning. But while they wait for the other shoe to drop (maybe it’s dropping as you read), the Glen Cove ferrygoers were enjoying their unexpected ride — all 35 or so on the boat built for more than 200.
Raj Wakhale of Huntington, for example, was sitting good-humoredly on the open deck despite a slight drizzle. Nursing a beer and toasting the landscape, he praised the spaciousness compared to the usual squeezing on the train. You weren’t sweating on the guy next to you or smelling his beer. He said there had been free food at the Glen Cove Ferry terminal in the morning. “I’m sure we’re paying for it somehow,” allowed Wakhale, 48.
For Pauyo, the Glen Cove resident enjoying his solitude out of the rain, the boat actually made his commute much easier. His office is right next to the Wall Street drop-off for the morning ferry. Couldn’t be easier.
That may not be true for the many who find the ride too long or inconvenient — factors in the dampening of demand for the Glen Cove-Manhattan ferry, which has been an elusive goal for decades. Another factor: potential unreliability, as was the case on Friday when two of the four runs were cancelled due to morning engine problems.
Pauyo says the better way to make ferry service sustainable is similar to what the MTA was forced to do this summer: use the bounty of NY’s waterways and create an alternative to the train, not a replacement. Then price and size the boats for demand, and re-format the ride to make it competitively pleasant (Pauyo is, you may have guessed, a banker). He said there were easy ways to spruce up the ferry, one of a varied fleet the MTA is using — have more outdoor seating, for example, perhaps “flat screen TVs” or outlets for your phone. At the moment, the enclosed deck sported only a sad string of party lights and a single wilted houseplant.
Can ferries catch on?
The alternative transportation strategy is similar to what Mayor Bill de Blasio is trying in the city with a ferry service that launched this spring. Because each boat has about the capacity of a single subway car the system won’t a replacement for other modes of transportation. But it’s certainly pleasant during warm months, particularly when compared with the subways, whose burden it might ease.
In some ways, subway riders are having a truer summer from hell this year, with delays and malfunctions abounding. Ferrygoers generally knew how lucky they had it last week, a much nicer experience than LIRR or subway riders faced. Glen Cove Deputy Mayor Barbara Peebles, a longtime ferry advocate, says she’s not surprised to hear about the good experiences, though she had expected many more commuters to try the option even with the limited schedule.
She says she went to sleep the night before launch day thinking “we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
They didn’t, and what she hopes will become a popular permanent ferry is off to a slow start. But maybe people will eventually be drawn by a potentially not-so-hellish season on the waves.