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Cities Encourage Commuters to Take to the Water

By: Jennifer Saranow
The Wall Street Journal
September 5, 2006

The growing efforts to encourage more people to get out of their cars and take to the water include expanding ferry and water-taxi services, offering free passes for ferry rides, and developing quicker and easier ways for passengers to buy tickets.

This fall, the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization plans to present proposals to county commissioners and other officials for a water-transit system that, if approved, could come as early as 2008 and include water-taxi and water-ferry routes on Biscayne Bay. The District of Columbia's transportation department is planning a pilot project it describes as a "bus on water," set to begin service in the spring on the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. In Hawaii, a new ferry designed to carry commuters to Honolulu from West Oahu is set to be launched early next year. The San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority plans to add about eight new ferry routes over the next two decades, the first coming in 2008 between Oakland and South San Francisco. More stops or boat times for commuters have (helped, as have) bars and comfortable seats. There is also evidence ferries may be safer. A recent study, for example, for the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority found that ferries had lower fatality and patron-injury rates than rail and roadway transit systems.

Ferries also can serve as an important form of backup transportation,been added by the Wendella Sightseeing Co.'s Wendella RiverBus in Chicago and Ed Kane's Water Taxis service in Baltimore.

The focus on ferries represents a return to earlier centuries before major bridges and tunnels when water was an essential artery for transportation. It also presents a relaxing alternative to being stuck in a interminable traffic jam on the approach to a city bridge. Jim Healy, a corporate-training consultant in Alameda, Calif., started taking the ferry to work in San Francisco about a year and half ago rather than drive his Toyota Tacoma pickup truck or take a bus. "I may read, I may stare at the beautiful San Francisco Bay or I may pull out my computer and work," he says. "It's really quite luxurious."

Still, commuting by water has its drawbacks. There can be logistical hassles like no service during the winter months and figuring out how to get from a ferry dock to the office. Commuters who take the water also aren't immune to high fuel prices since some ferry operators are adding small fuel surcharges to their tickets.

Indeed, higher gas prices are spurring many ferry operators, generally private, nonsubsidized ones, to raise prices, which could hurt ridership. The faster the ferry, the higher the price, generally. For the high-speed Baylink ferry service linking Vallejo, Calif., with San Francisco, fares went up about 15 percent on Sept. 1. The price of a round-trip day pass rose to $19.25 from $17. By comparison, commuters could instead take a bus from Vallejo to San Francisco, with a round-trip bus ticket the same price as the ferry, according to Baylink.

Similarly, on June 1, NY Waterway raised some prices 25 cents to $1 per ride depending on the route. A one-way ticket from Weehawken, N.J., to midtown Manhattan, for instance, went up 25 cents to $6 and a monthly pass went up to $211 from $200. In contrast, to get from Weehawken to Manhattan by rail would cost about $3.25 per ride and about $93 a month, but would include a train transfer in Hoboken, according to NJ Transit. The monthly NY Waterway fare from Belford, N.J., rose to $572 from $550. To get a train from the area to Manhattan costs $297 per month.

Such hurdles mean it remains to be seen whether water commuting will truly catch on. According to figures released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau, 43,868 workers out of about 133.1 million typically got to work via the ferry last year, a fraction of the roughly 116.7 million that commuted via car, truck or van. Still, ferry ridership is up from about 37,497 workers in 1990, according to the Census.

At the federal level, the latest transportation bill authorized more funding for ferries than the previous bill -- $335 million over five years, up from $220 million in the previous bill. Other states and cities working on developing or boosting ferry and water-taxi service include St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Bridgeport, Conn., which finished a report in August showing a high-speed ferry service between Bridgeport, Stamford, Conn., and New York City would be financially feasible.

Besides the new water-transportation options, existing services in cities from New York to Seattle are expanding and trying to spur ridership. Earlier this year, the privately owned New York Water Taxi, which serves commuters crossing the East River with yellow taxilike boats, started forming partnerships with new apartment developments and giving new tenants discounts and free passes. Another private ferry operator NY Waterway, with 18 local routes, painted two of its ferries last month to resemble yachts and plans to put the finish on all 34 ships it operates. In August, Washington State Ferries started testing letting riders buy tickets online and is working on enabling monthly pass holders to get fees automatically downloaded to pass cards each month.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the local water-transit authority estimates that 332,857 riders traveled on the six ferry routes in the area in May, up 40 percent from 238,202 in May 2005. In June and July, when three ferry operators offered six free days during periods of unhealthy air pollution along with other forms of public transport, usage rose even more from a year earlier.

Across the 10 routes offered in Washington, there were nearly 1 percent more passengers in July from a year earlier and the number of passengers on the Bremerton-Seattle route rose 4.5 percent in the period. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimates that there are about 37,000 daily weekday trips across 22 routes in the area, up from about 33,000 trips daily on 14 routes before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The agency, which has started working on a study that could lead to a regional ferry plan, predicts growth of 3 percent to 5 percent over the next few years, with ferry service set to be launched between Yonkers, N.Y., and Manhattan in the spring and from Edgewater, N.J., to lower Manhattan later this year.

In the Boston area, the closing of one of the Big Dig tunnels, additional service to Boston Logan International Airport and higher gas prices combined in July to lift commuter boat usage. Ridership from Quincy, Hull and Hingham to Boston rose 14 percent from July 2005 to 113,250 riders in July 2006, according to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Elsewhere in Massachusetts this summer, service from Salem, Mass., to Boston was launched -- and Plymouth, Mass., is studying the feasibility of a ferry for commuters to Boston. Last week, Rep. William Delahunt, (D., Mass.) sent a letter to the governor proposing to boost ferry service even further.

The biggest hurdles to ferry ridership may be getting from the dock to the office and, in the winter months, suffering a cold trip across the water or finding ferry service at all. In Honolulu, a short-term pilot ferry a few years ago linking the city with the west didn't attract a lot of ridership partly because there wasn't adequate land transportation linking to the ferries, says Toru Hamayasu, chief planner for the city's transportation department. He says the new permanent service will have about three city buses waiting to shuttle arriving passengers.

Similarly, Ed Kane's Water Taxis in Baltimore, which runs spring through fall and started commuter service before 10 a.m. last year, is working on adding jitney buses to its service as early as next year. The buses could transport passengers further inland so the taxis can serve more commuters than just those who work by the harbor. NJ Transit in New Jersey has also over the past year adjusted some of its commuter-bus routes so they link up better to ferries going to New York.

While ticket prices for boat and ferry rides may be on par or even higher than other forms of public transportation, ferries can be faster and also often offer other perks like a view of the sea, wireless access, television sets for instance, during blackouts or after terrorist attacks. After Sept. 11, 2001, large numbers of people were evacuated from lower Manhattan in boats and extra ferry service in the area until late 2003 helped to make up for shuttered commuter-train service.

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