Mayoral candidates on a five-borough, MetroCard-capable ferry system

The East River Ferry. (Dan Nguyen via Flickr)
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"I'm committed to the notion that we have to greatly expand ferry service," said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio today, sitting in a plush armchair on the Hornblower Infinity, which, though securely moored to Pier 40 in the Hudson River, was slowly rocking in the tide.

De Blasio is running for mayor, and he, like each of the other five candidates who showed up to this morning's mayoral forum on the watefront, seems to believe that New York City can support an expansive commuter ferry system, one that would build upon the surprisingly successful East River Ferry begun under Mayoral Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Quinn, of course, is also running for mayor, and today not only did she refer to herself as the "waterfront speaker" and argue, as she has many times in the past, for "embracing our rivers as the next great blue highways," but she also argued that commuters should be able to use their M.T.A. MetroCards on ferries.  

"My real long-term vision, and it will take us a while to get there perhaps, is that we could use MetroCards on all of these services and you could have the same free kind of transfer as you have in other situations," said Quinn.

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Former comptroller Bill Thompson, similarly, said New York should have an "integrated system that ties ferries into subways, into buses, into our full mass transit system." Current comptroller John Liu said, "The waterways do need to be used once again as a primary source of transportation," and former Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion, who lives on City Island and is running on the Independence Party line, said, "If I had a City Island ferry stop, I would have been here 30 minutes ago. So we need to ... have a City Island ferry stop and many other ferry stops around the city, and make sure that I can use my MetroCard to get onto that ferry and transfer onto the web of mass transit in the city."

Former M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota, who's running as a Republican, didn't show up at the forum. When he was at the M.T.A., he expressed support for integrating ferries into the transit system but opposed the idea of the free transfer.

Supermarket and oil magnate John Catismatidis, who is also running as a Republican, talked about "riverboats or ferries" in the context of a five-borough 21st century World's Fair, which is one of the planks in his economic development platform.

Today's forum was hosted by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance and moderated by its chairman Chris Ward, who used to run the Port Authority.

During the forum, which was basically a series of one-on-ones with Chris Ward, he asked the candidates how they planned to fund the expanded ferry service they so eagerly sought.

Right now, the East River Ferry connecting Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens costs the city about $3 million a year.

A 2011 city study estimates additional ferry lines would cost the city more than a million dollars each in subsidies, in some cases much more, and integrating the system with the M.T.A.'s would presumably raise the cost substantially.

But Quinn, at leats, defended such costs as a worthwhile investment for the city.

"There is no mass transit that is free to put out or develop," said Quinn.  "And if you compare implementing ferry routes with building subways, it's so clear which is less costly, which is easier, which is faster ... I want to be clear, for us to do ferries just like with other mass transit, there has to be subsidies."

De Blasio said additional funding should come from the federal government. (Seeking federal funding for infrastructure is a frequent talking point of his.)

Thompson called for the ferries to be rolled into either the M.T.A. or the Port Authority and for a new weight-based vehicle registration fee and the reinstitution of the commuter tax.

Because the latter would require the approval of the the suburban legislators whose constituents would be taxed, its odds in Albany are exceedingly remote.

"It's easy to talk about a ferry system when we all want it, but it's also very, very challenging to figure out how you fund the ferry system," Ward told the audience, after the candidates left.

Left undiscussed was the whether, in fact, ferries make sense as a mass transit solution for New York City.

"It’s about waterfront to waterfront access," said Rich Barone, the director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association. "It works in some of these new developments in Brooklyn and potentially Queens to lower Manhattan, where you can pretty much walk to your final destination. But once you start talking about midtown, it’s not an easy walk from 34th street to where your office building is."

The city launched a three-year East River Ferry pilot in 2011.

By the end of last year, more than 1.6 million people had ridden it, and the city announced it was continuing the program through 2019.

One-way ticket cost $4 a pop.

"The East River Ferry has been successful for the most part," said Barone. "But the numbers are still really low, relative to buses or the subway."