OP-ED: Set sail with new FTA ferry funding

July 15, 2022
This is an opportunity to apply for $294.5 million in competitive grant funding for passenger ferry programs.

There is good news from Washington concerning federal support for transportation. The United States Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) on July 8. This is an opportunity to apply for $294.5 million in competitive grant funding. It is now available for the Ferry Grant Programs.

FTA’s Ferry Programs, which includes three new competitive programs this year, supports transit agencies wanting to modernize and improve passenger ferry service, establish new service, transition to climate-friendly technologies and expand ferry services to rural areas. There is $209 million available under the Ferry Service for Rural Communities Program that provides funding to states to ensure basic essential ferry service is provided to rural areas; $49 million is available under the Electric or Low-Emitting Ferry Pilot Program for electric or low-emitting ferries and associated infrastructure that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using alternative fuels or on-board energy storage systems; and $36.5 million is available to provide funding to support existing ferry service, establish new ferry service, repair and modernize ferry boats, terminals, related facilities and equipment in urbanized areas, with $3.25 million set aside to support low or zero-emission ferries. The application period closes on Sept. 6, 2022.

The nation's largest ferry operator with 66,000 pre COVID-19 daily riders is the NYC Department of Transportation. The agency is a direct recipient of FTA funding on behalf of the Staten Island Ferry System. There are other passenger ferry systems in Boston, Mass., New Orleans, La., San Francisco, Calif., and Seattle, Wash., and others around the nation. Since passage of the 1964 Urban Mass Transportation Act, all have benefits from capital, operating and planning grants from Washington.

FTA recipients can also choose to spend whatever they receive under their share of Fiscal Year Section 5307 Urbanized Area ($6.408 billion) or Section 5337 State of Good Repair High Intensity Fixed Guideway ($399 billion) for ferry projects. The Federal Highway Administration has funding under several programs including Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ), Surface Transportation Program (STP) and others which can be flexed or transferred to the FTA to also finance capital ferry projects.

Federal support for the NYC DOT Staten Island Ferry, like all transit systems, has been consistent and grown over time. When a crisis occurred, be it 9/11 in 2001, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 or COVID-19 in 2020, Washington was there for us. Additional millions in federal assistance above and beyond yearly formula allocations were provided. The same held true In 2009, with passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Thousands of daily pre COVID-19 riders would use ferries sponsored by the NYC Economic Development Corporation Private Ferry operators program. They connect various waterfront neighborhoods around NYC including Soundview and Throgs Neck/Ferry Point in the Bronx, Astoria, Long Island City, Roosevelt Island, the Rockaways in Queens, East 79th Street, East 34th Street, Pier 11 Wall Street, Governors Island in Manhattan, along with Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Army Terminal and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, St. George, Staten Island Ferry Terminal to Pier 79 West 39th Street Midtown Manhattan with an intermediate stop in Battery City Park adjacent to the World Financial & World Trade Center. In the near future, other new ferry services are anticipated to start from Coney Island, Brooklyn and Staten Island South Shore.

NYC can also apply for capital grants from the New York State Department of Transportation to assist in funding. Albany also provides State Transportation Operating Assistance (STOA). Ridership on any transit service generates yearly federal transportation capital assistance via the annual FTA Section 15 annual reporting process. Numerous past private ferry operators have come and gone. They could not financially survive without government subsidy. The NY MTA bus, subway, Staten Island Railway and commuter rail along with NYC DOT Staten Island Ferry is subsidized by a combination of city, state and federal assistance for both capital and operating costs. All ferry services require similar subsidies to survive.

Farebox recovery rates vary based upon the trip, route and time of day. Any rush hour local or express bus, light rail, subway, ferry, commuter rail trip carries more riders than mid day, evening, overnight or weekends. Rush hour trips tend to have a better fare box recovery rate and require less subsidy. There is always a fixed cost per hour for any mode of transportation. This includes equipment (bus, subway car, train or ferry purchase) straight line depreciation of equipment over time and mileage, driver, engineer or ferry boat captain's salary, conductors, ticket takers, deck hands, fuel or power and maintenance of equipment.

NYC Mayor Eric Adams needs to convince the MTA Board to support the NYC EDC private ferry program fare structure of $2.75 per ride to also include cross honoring a free transfer to a bus or subway using the old MTA Metro or new One New York (OMNY) fare card. Riders could purchase weekly or monthly passes for discounted fares. These could be supplemented by using transit checks, which will further reduce the cost per ride.

Enjoy the fresh air and breeze that only waterborne transportation can provide. Riding a ferry can be less stressful than traveling by bus or subway. 

About the Author

Larry Penner

Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously served as a former director for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office of Operations and Program Management. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for New Jersey Transit, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North railroads, MTA Bus, NYCDOT Staten Island Ferry along with 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.