Staten Island Ferry lower-level boarding returns

The Staten Island Ferry's lower level is open for business on Sept. 18. 2017.
The Staten Island Ferry’s lower level is open for business on Sept. 18. 2017. Photo Credit: Getty Images for CBS Radio / Kevin Winter

Staten Island Ferry riders use various animal-based analogies to describe how the throngs of commuters board boats during rush hours — from the “penguin waddle” to “cattle herding.” 

The city hopes to end those metaphors on Monday, the first day of lower-level boarding at both the St. George and Whitehall ferry terminals in 13 years. 

“Upstairs you feel like you’re cattle into the shoot. You have to do what we call the ‘ferry shuffle’ into the boat,” said Jackie Bennett, a teacher from West Brighton who boarded from the lower level to catch the 8 a.m. ferry from St. George. “It’s smart and ultimately we’ll load quicker.”

Both lower-level boarding and vehicular passage were eliminated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, through a federal law called the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, which mandated the separation of boarding and disembarking passengers, the latter of which were still permitted to leave boats from terminals’ lower-level.

After calls from local elected officials, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration worked to reconfigure both terminals’ lower-level spaces to meet federal requirements. Passengers are now able to board from the ground level of Whitehall Terminal between noon and 8 p.m. on both weekdays and weekends. On Staten Island, the city is studying a limited pilot, where riders can board from the lower level between 6:40 and 9 a.m. on weekdays only.

“These changes will get ferries from the docks a bit faster and reduce congestion at the ferry terminals during the busiest times of the day,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Thanks to Borough President Jimmy Oddo for his strong advocacy of this change, which Staten Islanders and its growing number of visitors can expect will make the trip across the harbor a bit more relaxed.”

De Blasio has said the expanding boarding areas will help the ferry deal with growing ridership, which now tips more than 65,000 passengers per day. The changes were promised in April during a week spent working from Staten Island at one of his “City Hall in Your Borough” events.

Though cyclists have always boarded from the lower level, it might take some time to change Staten Islanders’ habits. On the 7 a.m. boat from St. George, just 38 pedestrians used the newly configured lower level. On the 7:15 a.m. departure, there were 16 pedestrians waiting downstairs. Those boats can serve upward of 700 to more than 1,000 commuters on an average weekday, according to the DOT.

The new boarding procedures aren’t expected to provide any relief for the tardy commuters who occasionally race up a flight of stairs only to just miss their boats.

Since the lower levels of each terminal are still considered restricted areas under federal law, the DOT must promptly close lower-level boarding gates at ferry departure times, maybe a minute or two before upstairs gates close, according to Staten Island Ferry chief operating officer James DeSimone, who greeted passengers at the lower level of St. George Terminal Monday morning alongside DOT Borough Commissioner Tom Cocola and Councilwoman Debi Rose.

“If someone thinks they’re going just run through at the last minute — those same security requirements remain in place,” DeSimone said. “So it’s not as if someone can just run through the lower level down to the boat. We have to basically … close the boarding down here in time to keep the ferry on schedule.”

Correction: A previous version of this story had an incorrect title for Tom Cocola. He is the Department of Transportation borough commissioner.

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