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Tunnel Vision

Canarsie Residents Want a Ferry to Save Them From the L Train Shutdown

Boats > trains anyway.

by John Surico
Apr 4 2018, 5:54am

A New York City ferry. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

Ferries are a small, albeit important, part of the L train shutdown plan.

According to city and state officials, at least 5 percent of the 225,000 daily riders stranded by the L train shutdown in 2019—or about 11,250 people—are expected to hop on a ferry once the subway goes offline. The official mitigation plan released by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) in December hopes to make room for them: a new ferry service will regularly operate from North Brooklyn to Manhattan’s East Side, connecting riders to an express bus there. With capacity for 150 passengers each, a ferry is set to arrive every seven and a half minutes, with eight ferries running during peak hours to carry some 1,200 riders (or the population of a single L train).

But not in Canarsie. In fact, there is little to show in the mitigation plan for the Brooklyn neighborhood at the L’s eastern terminus, which is located in an area long plagued by issues of unemployment and transit. As it stands, the only alternative available for Canarsie commuters is to transfer to other train lines—but how efficient that’ll be remains to be seen. Travel times there are already exhausting, residents have told VICE, and the shutdown is not going to help.

So it wasn’t particularly difficult for Marc Want, a longtime resident and head of the Canarsie Improvement Association, to garner over 6,000 signatures for a petition calling for a ferry to operate from the neighborhood’s pier, which is located in Gateway National Recreation Area, a federal urban park. In recent years, the city has launched ‘NYC Ferry,’ a ferry service that has already blown past 2019 projections for ridership levels, and is set to fully operate six lines by summer 2018. To Want and others, the impending L train shutdown is one of many reasons why Canarsie should have one of those lines.

VICE: What's your history in Canarsie?
Marc Want: I've lived in Canarsie for 41 years, but for a long time I had never worked locally. I had an office on Long Island, and in New Jersey. I kept doing a lot of traveling—until the hurricane hit. I own a computer company, and so we were basically forced to work online most of the time, and then myself and a few other employees stopped traveling to work. We telecommuted. So all of a sudden, I found myself in the neighborhood for extended periods of time. Turns out that right before the hurricane, we got a dog, so I started going out to the park, and I met people who had dogs. Long story short, we started a kennel club in the park here, and we were talking: everybody seemed to have problems with transportation from Canarsie. A lot of people work in Manhattan, or they go to school there.

How did the ferry idea come about?
A few of us got together to go shopping at Costco, and while we were driving on the Belt Parkway, we see the ferry go by. And then further down, we see another ferry going by. We didn't know anything about the ferry; we didn't even know it existed, or that it was going to the Rockaways. And then, all of a sudden, we said, 'We have a pier here. It'd make all the sense in the world for us to have an alternate method of transportation like the ferry.' There are docks in Manhattan, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that this would be a great way to commute. Right?

What's the condition of the pier right now?
The pier doesn't really need anything. We checked the depth in the area; the ferry requires 12 feet of depth, and we have 17. We have everything here to handle this. Many, many years ago, we had a ferry coming here that went to the Rockaways. In fact, if you actually read about Canarsie, they were planning to make this area a major port, with train service. Newark took it all over, when their airport came into existence. So the pier made a lot of sense then, and it's beautiful. A lot of people use it.

We definitely have the facilities—it is a federal pier. At one point New York City controlled it, and then gave it to the state, and they gave it to the [US Parks Service]. In a way, we do need the federal authorities to participate in this, but checking some records, what we found is that the federal government has a program for bringing ferries to parks. They've allocated $70 or $80 million for that, and it's good through 2020. So they'll finance the boats, any physical renovations that have to be done, and so on. It seems like the money is there.

So what has the city said?
It took about six months, and finally the mayor agreed to accept the [6,000] petitions directly. So we had a meeting with him at one of the events he was holding, and before the event we presented him with the petitions. His statement to us was 'Well, we'll certainly look into it.' He never really made any commitment to us, to actually get the ferry here.

The pier is here. All of the facilities are here. The parking is here. Bathrooms are here. It's just a question of bringing the boats. Keep it here for three months, and if they say, 'Wait a second, you guys lied—the ridership just isn't there,' they can take the boat somewhere else. The experiment has no cost to it, basically.

[In a statement to VICE, Stephanie Báez, the vice president of public affairs for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the ferry service, said, “Following the roll-out of the Lower East Side and Soundview routes this summer, NYCEDC will commence another study to determine the feasibility of expanding NYC Ferry service to more communities, including Canarsie.”]

How would the ferry help during the shutdown?
I requested figures from the MTA of the ridership from Canarsie and East New York on the L train. In 2016, there was about 30,000 people getting on at those five stops, after Broadway Junction. It would make sense for all of those people to take the train in the other direction, and actually take a ferry from Rockaway Parkway. Because we already have a shuttle bus there that people use to get to Bayview Housing.

When I did my calculations, I only focused on train ridership. But we have a phenomenal number of buses coming out of Canarsie. So that would also get diminished, because people will start taking the ferry instead of taking the bus. The buses get pretty crowded, and take a long time. If you look at all the benefits—reduction in traffic, and the comfort of riding—there's really no reason, other than the one negative being inclement weather. But maybe you take a train that day.

What general transit issues will Canarsie residents face during the L train shutdown?
We had DOT and the MTA come to Community Board 18 to give a presentation on what they're trying to do, and honestly, their entire focus is on Bedford Avenue. There's not much for Canarsie at all. You've heard the numbers of crossing Williamsburg Bridge in less than a minute by bus. It will not work; it will be a huge disaster. You cannot load that many people onto the bus in the given period of time. So you know you're getting into a problem before you've even started. Why not see how you can eliminate the periphery, so you're not getting as many people into that area that have to be transported? If you take 30,000-plus riders, and you offload it from that area, that area will not be as congested. So you have less to worry about there.

I don't understand the lack of creativity on the planning side of it. Putting more buses isn't really a solution. There's got to be some better way of approaching the entire scenario than simply worrying about the transport at the end points.

You mentioned before that all of the focus is on Bedford Avenue and Williamsburg, and not the other end of the line. Is that sentiment shared by other residents in Canarsie?
Oh, absolutely. I'm sure if this was a more affluent community, we'd be more paid attention to, because you cannot ignore it. Why did the ferries start with the shortest distances to the city? You have ferries that are traveling relatively short distances—aside from the Rockaway Ferry, which covers a substantial distance. They have a bit worse of a commute than us, but still, we're the same distance from Manhattan as the Rockaways. They're starting ferries in Queens and so on; areas that are much closer and [have less] transportation problems as it is. This is just an added benefit for them.

So what’s next in this push? More petition signatures?
The money [could be] there from the federal government. We have every politician behind us; every councilman in the area, our senator and congressman included. And we can't seem to get it done. I don't know what else is required. I'm actually at a loss. We submitted the petition, but where does it stand? Has it ended up in Never Never Land? What is the timeframe they are trying to accomplish with our request?

Whatever effort we need to put in, the nice thing about it is that we're mostly retirees, so we have time. We'll put our time in to get things done.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the NYC Ferry was set to operate eight lines by the beginning of this summer. In fact the ferry will operate six lines, and an exact date has yet to be set.