Citing a lack of transparency and “exploding” costs, Comptroller Scott Stringer wants the city to consider taking over NYC Ferry operations.
The private company Hornblower currently operates the service with oversight from the city’s Economic Development Corporation — but new reports on NYC Ferry’s remarkably high subsidies and questionable contracts have concerned the comptroller, who suggests placing it under the operation of the Department of Transportation.
“The Economic Development Corporation’s contract with NYC Ferry operator Hornblower raises serious questions about the exploding costs and liabilities that the city is choosing to absorb, all while handing over millions in revenue to a private contractor — questions that to-date have not been sufficiently answered,” Stringer said in a statement issued Wednesday.
NYC Ferry, with its six routes, receives the second-highest taxpayer subsidies of all the city’s mass transit options — trailing just behind express buses — while serving a tiny fraction of commuters, the Citizens Budget Commission found in a report issued last week.
That report came shortly after Stringer blocked the city’s roughly $82 million bid to buy the fleet of 19 NYC Ferry boats from Hornblower — even though the city had initially planned for its ferry operator to purchase and supply its own boats, according to Stringer.
“Now, not only has EDC voluntarily elected to buy the full fleet of newly constructed vessels, Hornblower is still allowed to keep all the revenues generated from riders, at least until ridership increases significantly from today’s levels,” Stringer wrote the city in a letter dated March 18. “This would appear to be the worst of both worlds: city taxpayers are now bearing all costs attendant to owning a fleet of ferries, while the vendor retains all the revenue."
De Blasio spokesman Seth Stein accused Stringer, a potential 2021 mayoral candidate, of playing politics.
“With nearly nine million rides and counting, it’s clear that people love the NYC Ferry because it’s improved their lives," Stein said in a statement. "It saves them time and connects them to places that other forms of transit do not reach. The comptroller should put politics aside and recognize the necessity of expanding public transit for New Yorkers."
The ferry system, launched and lauded by de Blasio in 2017, operates with a per passenger subsidy of $10.73 — coming in just under the MTA’s express bus service, which has an $11.79 subsidy per rider. All the while the ferries carried 4.1 million riders in 2018, or a little more than two days’ worth of trips on the city’s local bus network.
Overall, the city is committing $638.5 million in capital to the service through 2022.
The Citizens Budget Committee also has criticized the city for not providing enough information to fully assess NYC Ferry operations.
“EDC is disclosing everything they have to disclose legally,” Sean Campion, of the CBC, told amNewYork last week, “but because EDC’s budget for the ferry system isn’t public, you’re going to get very limited information about the revenues coming in and what they’re spending it on.”
Hornblower has a six-year contract to operate the service. Stringer said there would be multiple benefits to moving the private contractor out and placing the service under the DOT, which currently operates the albeit much larger Staten Island Ferry.
“This has the potential to improve efficiency and public savings across the board — capitalizing on DOT’s experience running the Staten Island Ferry, eliminating administrative redundancies, allowing the city to keep all fare box and concession revenues, and providing a level of budgetary and operational transparency that EDC has to-date refused to provide,” Stringer added.
Hornblower did not immediately respond to a request for comment.