Some of those service reductions on the Staten Island Ferry may last a bit longer than initially anticipated.
On Tuesday night, City Hall announced that the Department of Transportation (DOT) would operate reduced overnight Staten Island Ferry service in Fiscal Years 2020-2021 in order to save the city $6 million.
Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) concludes on Sept. 30, 2021, meaning Staten Islanders could be without full service on the Staten Island Ferry for the next 18 months.
The DOT says it will monitor ridership levels in the coming months and review the possibility of restoring full overnight service before the end of FY21, but could not commit to early service restoration at this time.
“With ridership down 85-90% we expected it to take a while to get back to ‘normal’ rates. We will continue to post updates while ridership remains at these low levels and we remain committed to transparency,” a DOT spokesperson said.
While not specifying the exact hours that will be affected, the spokesperson noted that 1:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. was the last time slot to receive half-hourly service back in 2015.
Since April 1, overnight ridership on the Staten Island Ferry has drastically dropped, with an average ferry ridership of just 40 passengers between midnight and 5 a.m., according to the DOT.
The service reduction was one of many budget cuts announced by agencies across the city as part of a “Program to Eliminate the Gap” — or PEG procedure — that identified over $1.3 billion in savings citywide.
“Sadly, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting revenue losses to the city, we must take significant action to preserve our ability to provide basic operations and continue to fund life-saving measures,” said City Hall spokesperson Freddi Goldstein.
“Many of these cuts are responsive to our current reality of suspension of non-essential operations, while maintaining our commitment to Pre-K for All, health care, access to food, workplace protections, critical Thrive services and public safety,” he continued.
Also included in the transportation-related budget cuts were: a delayed rollout of the Better Bus Initiative, expected to save the city $2.7 million in FY20 and $5.7 million in FY21; a reduction in funding for the Vision Zero public awareness campaign, expected to save the city $3 million over FY20-21; a reduction in funding for markings and materials used for Vision Zero Street Improvement Programs, expected to save the city $4 million over FY20-21; a reduction in funding for protected bike lane programs, expected to save the city $3 million over FY20-21.
CONCERNS ABOUT SERVICE REDUCTION
Restoring and maintaining around-the-clock half-hour service on the Staten Island Ferry is a priority of Borough President James Oddo, who authored the bill mandating 24/7, half-hour service back in 2013.
Last week, Oddo told the Advance he is deeply concerned about the mayor’s ability to unilaterally override the legislation, as he has done by reducing service to an hourly basis during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a secondary issue for now, in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s an important issue for Staten Island because the precedent is one that I’m concerned about — the notion of invoking emergency provisions to undo a local law,” Oddo said.
In late March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the Staten Island Ferry would be shifting to hourly service due to declining ridership and lack of staffing during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
The news troubled Oddo, who voiced concerns regarding unilateral executive action being used to undercut legally-mandated service for Staten Islanders.
“I get it,” Oddo said. “I understand we’re in a war. I understand we’re in a pandemic. I understand it makes no sense to have that level of service when ridership is decreasing. But I worry about, and I think Staten Island always has to worry about, allowing unilateral action by an executive.”
A representative from the mayor’s office told the Staten Island Advance that the mayor is legally permitted to induce service reductions in the event of an emergency and that the office is working with Oddo to ensure the safety of Staten Island commuters.
“The law very clearly gives us the power to change the schedule during an emergency,” said mayoral spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie. “We will continue to work with the borough president to determine the best ways to protect Staten Islanders’ health and safety.”
Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT), the agency responsible for operating the Staten Island Ferry, said her agency understands how important it is for half-hourly service to be restored once the pandemic has passed.
“We know what a priority it is,” Trottenberg said. “We recognize we have a legal obligation once this emergency is over to pick back up to regular operations. For now, we just have to get through this crisis, but we’re certainly aware of what an important priority it is for the borough president.”
Despite repeated reminders from the DOT, Staten Island Ferry riders are still struggling to maintain a safe social distance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Since service shifted to hourly, there has been some concern among commuters that the remaining boats are more densely crowded, making it difficult to practice social distancing, particularly during the boarding and unboarding process.
Last week, Oddo issued three requests to the DOT to improve safety on the Staten Island Ferry amid the service reductions, including calls for a redesigned boarding process that could alleviate such issues.
“The biggest challenge in terms of social distancing is the boarding process and, frankly, we’re not particularly thrilled that there hasn’t been a better process put in place, but it’s limited,” Oddo said. “We asked about the ability to open and have boarding on more ramps, but didn’t get an answer that was satisfactory.”
The department said there is little that can be done to physically change the boarding process, but announcements are being made regularly and NYPD presence has been increased, both on boats and within the terminals, to enforce social distancing.
“We’re making announcements in the terminals, we’re probably going to have someone out there with a bullhorn tomorrow,” said Capt. Jim DeSimone, chief operations officer of the Staten Island Ferry. “We have the NYPD helping us and they’re making announcements on the ferry.”
With the department running various announcements and NYPD enforcement in place, DeSimone placed some responsibility on the ferry riders themselves to be more conscious of social distancing.
“Having said that, I saw pictures yesterday when that hospital ship pulled in to Manhattan and there were crowds of people as if it was some kind of tourist event. You know, there’s a point in time where we can only do so much,” DeSimone continued, imploring riders to do their part in maintaining social distance.
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