(New York, NY - WNYC) Several Brooklyn-to-Manhattan commuters were baffled at 7:45 this morning to find an unexpected boarding ritual taking place at the head of the gangway leading to their ferry. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a likely candidate for mayor, stood there waiting to shake hands.
"Congratulations!" Quinn told the riders, one by one. "You're among the million passengers to take the East River Ferry!"
That's a million paid customers in just over a year, more than double the initial projection of 409,000 annual riders. But that success comes at a price to the city: a $3.1 million subsidy per year over the three-year life of the pilot program.
The money comes from the city's Economic Development Corporation. Private ferries that criss-cross the Hudson River, connecting New Jersey to various parts of the harbor, do not receive subsidies.
The East River Ferry started with 12 days of free service last June. From the beginning, it proved popular with New Yorkers and tourists. The boats follow a route that goes from Wall Street to East 34th Street in Manhattan with stops along the way -- four in Brooklyn and one in Queens. Then they ply the trip in reverse. (Bloomberg and Quinn boarded at the North 6th Street stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a three stop ride to Wall Street.) In spring and summer, the ferry adds a Brooklyn harbor loop and makes the short hop from Lower Manhattan to Governor's Island.
Weekend service is especially popular in the warm months. Billy Bey, the company running East River Ferry, says it has had to operate larger vessels on the weekends to hold the crowds, and a new landing at Brooklyn Bridge Park has been fitted with wider gangways to speed boarding and disembarking.
The ferry isn't cheap: $4 for a one-way trip, compared to the $2.25 base fare per subway ride with a Metrocard; and the ferry charges $140 for a monthly commuter pass, compared to $104 for a 30-day unlimited ride MetroCard.
But sometimes a passenger like Bloomberg can catch a break. The mayor ordered a $2 cup of coffee from the on-board concession stand, which a woman who gave her name as Jennifer served up gratis. Jennifer said she was happy to do it "because he's the mayor," although she initially called him Mayor Giuliani. But Jennifer also noted a Bloombergian particularity: the mayor added milk to his Joe but, true to his crusade against empty calories, no sugar.