With essentially no notice to commuters, New York Waterway announced last week that it would raise monthly commuter fares on its vessels, with the increases taking effect Labor Day. The 15 percent increases a monthly pass from $80 to $92. Single and round trip tickets remain the same price.
The rate increases have angered both commuters and public officials.
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner was stunned by the move.
“This is the type of action that eventually leads to some kind of governmental regulations,” Turner said last week. “You have a large increase that no one was prepared for and that there was no public explanation [of] beforehand. It was ill-timed and ill-thought out. I have no knowledge yet whether the increase was warranted. There has to be a better approach to telling the public about a rate increase.”
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Hoboken City Council and Hoboken Mayor David Roberts have all protested the “stealth” fare hike. The Weehawken Township Council is currently looking at what the best course of action to take “to express our concerns to the proper agencies,” Turner said.
Hoboken’s Mayor Roberts lashed out at the increase.
“There were no public hearings and there was no advance notice of a 15 percent fare increase,” said Roberts Wednesday. “This is outrageous and unfair to the thousands of Hoboken commuters who rely on public transportation to get their jobs. I would like Governor McGreevey and Port Authority Chairman Anthony Corsica to ensure that this fare is justified.”
The Hoboken City Council passed a resolution asking for a state investigation into the fare increase.
Pat Smith of Rubenstein Associates, NY Waterway’s public relations firm, said that increases are necessary to cover its expenses.
“New York Waterway is a family-owned business that must pay its bills and collect revenue,” said Smith. He added that money from ticket sales, the company’s main source of revenue, must cover maintenance of the boats, fuel, salaries, insurance and a host of other costs.
NY Waterway also said that the increase was needed to offset an anticipated loss of revenue when PATH service resumes in Lower Manhattan later this year.
“The sensible approach would have been to wait for PATH service to resume and analyze a revenue decrease, if any,” said Roberts. “Is 15 percent arbitrary, or based on fact?”
Smith said that as of Thursday afternoon, he was not aware of Roberts’ comments, and could not comment on them directly.
Regular NY Waterway commuters were livid about the fare hike.
“How in the world can they do this, especially now?” said Emily Barthel of Weehawken, who uses the ferry service daily on her commute to her job at a Manhattan financial consulting firm. “A week before the anniversary of 9/11 and they’re hitting us with a rate hike with no warning? Are you kidding me? And it’s not like it’s a raise of 25 cents. It’s 12 bucks a month more. That’s absurd. They’re taking advantage of us because right now, we don’t have any other option as commuters.”
Ed Jacobsen of Weehawken agreed.
“NY Waterway knows that we can’t take any other mode of transportation across the river from Weehawken,” Jacobsen said. “We can’t drive. Buses are not an option, because they run infrequently. This is the only way to go and they know it. It’s almost like a monopoly and they’re hitting us hard.”
Susan Ertle of River Edge, who drives into Weehawken daily to use the ferry, said that she had no idea about the rate hike until she went to work Tuesday morning.
“I went up to the window to purchase my monthly ticket and they said it was $92,” Ertle said. “I said, ‘I usually pay $80.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, not anymore.’ Like they were smug about it. I can’t believe this is how they do business.”
PA chimes in
A. Paul Blanco, the PA chief of regional and economic development, wrote an August 25 memo to Arthur Imperatore, the president of NY Waterways in Weehawken, urging against a fare increase.
“Since 2001, NY Waterway has experienced a 111 percent increase in ridership for lower Manhattan services originating in Hoboken,” said the memo obtained by the Reporter. “We are certain you will agree that the increased ridership is largely comprised of displaced PATH patrons.”
Blanco added: “Although many existing NY Waterway commuters will continue using ferry service as their primary mode of transportation despite the increase, we believe that displaced PATH commuter should not be subject to a fare increase until an alternative mode of transportation is available.”
For the most part, a privately-owned business can raise its rate at its whim, but the picture becomes murkier when that company receives federal or state subsidies.
While NY Waterway does receive the bulk of its revenue from ticket sales and only rarely accepts subsidies, the company recently received government checks. According to Port Authority officials, NY Waterway was given the exclusive right to provide ferry service from Hoboken to all of Lower Manhattan by the Port Authority. Also, NY Waterway was the beneficiary of some $35 million of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to enhance ferry and bus services from Hoboken since 2001. Also, NY Waterway has been the direct recipient of a number of FEMA-funded capital construction projects totaling over $10 million during the same period.
Blanco said that because NY Waterway’s recent expanded service is governmentally subsidized, it should at least wait until the PATH is up and running until it considers raising fees.
Roberts said, “Public funds demand public review and hearing.”
Turner said that he wants to make sure that the revenues from the rate increase are going to make improvements to the existing Weehawken ferry terminal.
“Certain improvements need to be made to the terminal,” Turner said. “They need more emergency lighting, as we found out during the blackout, a better communication system, and they need to stabilize the walkway areas where passengers come on and off the ferries. We’ve expressed those concerns to them before.”
Turner added, “We appreciate the ferry service. They’ve become a very valuable addition to the mass transit system. No one wants to see them go away. But they can’t do things like this. There has to be a better approach.”