Brooklyn Boro

New York Water Taxi threatens shutdown, charging unfair competition

Ortiz Says City Favors California-Based Firm for New Service

March 16, 2016 By Raanan Geberer Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
This is a New York Water Taxi plying the waters of the East River by Brooklyn Bridge Park. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
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New York Water Taxi’s trademark yellow boats have been a common sight in New York Harbor since 2002.

But now, the company is threatening to shut down by the end of the year because of expenses, competition, a lack of government subsidies and unofficial reports that the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will reject New York Water Taxi’s bid for the planned Citywide Ferry Service in favor of a “company that is not based in New York.”

Anthony Hogrebe, a spokesman for EDC, told the Brooklyn Eagle, “We have not yet finalized [the] selection of a Citywide Ferry operator, but hope to be able to announce that in the near future.”

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A spokesperson for New York Water Taxi would not elaborate on which company might be likely to get the contract. However, Assemblymember Felix Ortiz (D-Red Hook-Sunset Park), in a letter of protest to Mayor Bill de Blasio, identified the company as Hornblower Cruises, based in San Francisco.

The de Blasio administration’s new Citywide Ferry Service, which is expected to begin operation in 2017, would link the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn. It would incorporate the existing East River Ferry routes currently operated by NY Waterway.

When it started out, New York Water Taxi offered regular commuter service from Fulton Ferry Landing to the Wall Street area. Service from the Brooklyn Army Terminal was soon added, and this route was very popular for a while because several subway lines were disrupted in the wake of 9/11. Ferries to Williamsburg were added in 2006.

When it concentrated on commuter service, New York Water Taxi on several occasions shut down its routes on a temporary basis, usually during the winter, citing expenses such as fuel and maintenance. Brooklyn elected officials supported the company in its struggle to remain viable.

The commuter routes were discontinued after the Bloomberg administration awarded the contract for its new East River Ferry service, which duplicated many of the New York Water Taxi routes, to competitor NY Waterway in 2011.

Today, according to its website, New York Water Taxi provides “hop-on, hop-off” service aimed at tourists (in Brooklyn, the stops include Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park and the company’s Red Hook dock at Van Brunt Street), Statue of Liberty cruises, several specialty cruises, private charters and more.

It also operates the well-known “IKEA Express” from Wall Street to Red Hook’s IKEA emporium. Interestingly, according to the East River Ferry website, NY Waterway charters some of New York Water Taxi’s boats “during weekday midday hours and also on weekdays during the off-season.”

With all this activity, however, New York Water Taxi officials feel they are the victims of unfair competition from NY Waterway, the Staten Island Ferry and more.

A letter signed by Helena Durst and David Neil, co-presidents of New York Water Taxi, says, “We cannot continue to viably operate in a market where our competitor controls the Statue of Liberty and Citywide Ferry Service routes with government subsidy. The Citywide Ferry will undoubtedly carry at least 50 percent tourists with a city subsidy, as the East River Ferry does now.

“We are already forced to compete with the free Staten Island Ferry … Too many of our customers are now choosing to ride this service to view the Statue of Liberty, rather than pay for our services.

“East River Ferry poses similar challenges. The majority of East River Ferry riders are tourists and recreational travelers, including weekend ridership. The government’s subsidy of ticket prices for tourists and leisure travelers does not make sense to us and undermines our current business,” continues the letter, which is dated March 10.

The letter says that all staff will be paid until October at a minimum in the event of a shutdown. It adds that Water Taxi employees will be given “preferential hiring treatment for available employment opportunities with our affiliate real estate company,” presumably, the Durst Organization.

In his own letter to de Blasio, Ortiz said that “from captains to crew and throughout the company, their employees and families live in my district and are part of my community. The loss of their jobs would be a terrible blow. The inclusion of New York Water Taxi in the Citywide Ferry Service is a no-brainer.”

New York Water Taxi was founded by developer Douglas Durst, father of Helena Durst, and environmentalist and waterfront planner Tom Fox. At the time, the company’s founding was hailed as a big step for the environment as well as for transportation.

The company spokesperson added that the company was among the first entities on the scene in Red Hook soon after Superstorm Sandy to provide service.

Raanan Geberer, a freelance writer, recently retired as managing editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He had been managing editor of the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin until 1996, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was revived and merged with the Bulletin.


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