About Roosevelt Island

When Will Ferries Finally Land At Roosevelt Island?

David Stone
Ferry Service Map, As Proposed Today
Ferry Service Map, As Proposed Today
Map supplied by EDC

Will Mayor Bill de Blasio's Economic Development Corp. hit its June, 2017, target, with a first group of Roosevelt Islanders boarding a ferry near Cornell Tech at the start of summer?

They couldn't be much different and still be mayors of New York, but Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg both embrace ambitious visions of New York City. That's about as much as they have in common.

Bloomberg pushed through a legacy initiative in his final term that you can see rising south of the Queensboro Bridge. Cornell Tech changes our neighborhood and the city beyond. With expanding ferry service, de Blasio is determined to do as much.

Although each project appeals to different constituencies, they are tied together on what is still a dilapidated landing where barges once parked to pump fuel oil into storage for the now demolished Goldwater Hospital's steam plant. The plant still stands, a counterpoint to the modern campus rising nearby.

A Tale of Two Mayors

I covered the Economic Development Corporation's drive to crown Mayor Bloomberg's tenure with a game changing tech campus for the Main Street WIRE, starting on a hot July day when City Council Member Jessica Lappin announced it in the Tram Plaza on Second Avenue and ending many months later with the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition's last push to influence Community Board 8.

The speed and deliberateness with which the city moved through the legally mandated steps that resulted in Cornell Tech were impressive.

Having dealt for years with the ball of complexity and confusion that is doing business with New York City, I wondered if Bloomberg's determined forces could pull it off in the time he had left. They had to sort through a dozen or so contenders before tapping Cornell over early favorite Stanford. Minefields of political and legal risk had to be navigated. But Bloomberg refused to have his vision thwarted.

The rewarding thing today is that focused management of government processes yielded, not a Rube Goldberg of compromise, but a widely praised campus plan poised to jump New York a few steps ahead of the field in current day technology.

A Populist Takes Office

Roosevelt Island activists have pushed hard for ferry service as a solution to our growing local transit crisis of jammed subway trains and trams. But it took the added pressure of Cornell Tech to get it done.

A relatively low tech throw back to how city residents got around in the days before the subway network spidered through four of five boroughs, new additions to city ferry service may mark the start of an effort as dramatic and far-reaching in its influence as the world class Cornell campus.

De Blasio's effort is at least as ambitious as Bloomberg's.

Ferry service for Roosevelt Island and other locations was, for decades, more conversation piece than realistic plan, funding always a very big elephant in a very small room. The new transportation option was unlikely to pay for itself during operations, even if money could be found to build suitable landings and supply boats for getting it started.

In stepped Bill de Blasio with $325 million to buy new ferries and construct docks, but as much a populist as Bloomberg was a technocrat, he went further. A ferry ride, he announced, will cost the same as the subway. What this means is that, once the system is operational, New York will shower it with big subsidies to make it affordable for all – at taxpayers' expense.

If the ferry system expansion, scheduled to go fully into service in 2018, succeeds, it will have a de Blasio stamp as clear as that of Bloomberg's on Cornell Tech. And we will be paying for it for much longer.

What To Expect for Roosevelt Island

Previous articles in the Roosevelt Island Daily explored the impacts of the soon to open Second Avenue Subway and other alternative transportation proposals, but nothing else on the drawing boards or floating in the minds of dreamers promises a more positive result for the local community than ferry service connecting us in a whole new way to the rest of the city.

Ferries coming and going from a dock behind the mothballed Goldwater steam plant, as currently projected, will reduce crowding on both the subway and the tram. Steps from the existing red bus stop and an easy to walk from both Southtown and the WIRE buildings, the ferry's total effectiveness will depend on its not yet announced frequency of service.

Increasing demand will be a factor too as Cornell Tech springs into action and, later, new Southtown buildings open.

Our ferry service's starting point will be Astoria, and after stopping for passengers here, the boats will re-cross the East Channel to Long Island City.

The Long Island City site leads to the most important gateway to Manhattan, a dock near the foot of 34th Street that's almost directly across the water. From there, you can access land-based transportation or continue south on the river to Wall Street, Queens and Brooklyn.

Projected times are promising; 22 minutes to 34th and 36 to Wall Street. But connections to subways will not be nearby nor will transfers be free.

Visit the active Hunters Point South dock and you'll see that the ferries landing and leaving are not full. Plenty of capacity is waiting for Roosevelt Islanders eager for alternatives to dirty, crowded subways and overburdened, limited tram rides.

As New Yorkers, most of us are accustomed to spending chunks of our days underground, for convenience, no matter the conditions, but for me, the lure of more time where the sun shines and natural winds blow is irresistible. I hope to be onboard one of the first ferries backing out from a refurbished dock on Roosevelt Island and that the Mayor's ambitious June, 2017, schedule holds.

How about you? Will we see you lining up on the first day? 

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