The river of no respect


City Council Member Mark Levine stands at the West 125th Street Pier on the Hudson River. Photo: Office of the Council Member

As city ferryboats ply the East River, the Hudson by comparison is becoming a transit backwater — but a nice berth is available near Columbia’s new uptown campus



BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN

East Siders have quickly embraced the city’s fast-growing ferry system to speed to jobs in midtown and downtown as waterborne commuters.

West Siders have had no such luck. The daily descent into a Dantesque subway system remains their inescapable ticket to jobs and paychecks.

It’s a tale of two rivers: The East River boasts six NYC Ferry routes with five stops. The Hudson River hosts zero routes and zero stops.

East River landings from 90th Street to Wall Street provide connections to Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, linking all 21 stops in a city system that spans 60 nautical miles. None of those stops can be accessed from the Hudson.

Now, City Council Member Mark Levine, who represents a swath of the West Side, is urging the city to launch a new ferry route from a landing at the West 125th Street Pier in Harlem.

The underutilized berth, which juts into the river opposite the uptown Fairway in the West Harlem Piers Park, could be used to establish both north-south service, linking midtown and downtown, and an east-west shuttle to Edgewater, N.J., a mere seven minutes away, he says.

“The city invested over $30 million in building the West Harlem Piers more than a decade ago — and they’ve sat mostly unused, except by joggers and people fishing, ever since,” Levine said in an interview.

“Meanwhile, we’ve launched a citywide ferry network that’s been an incredible success — except for one glaring omission: The West Side of Manhattan has been completely unserved,” he added.

Developing a new transportation hub uptown would ease chronic stress on over-packed 1 and A trains and “remove countless fume-spewing vehicles” from already-congested streets, curbing traffic, reducing asthma rates and creating a healthier environment, Levine argues.

The Council member, who represents the Upper West Side above 96th Street, Manhattan Valley, Morningside Heights, Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights, advanced his proposal in an Oct. 11 letter to James Patchett, president of the Economic Development Corp., the lead city agency overseeing ferry operations.

“As New York City continues to make the dream of a truly citywide ferry network a reality, I strongly urge you not to leave northern Manhattan behind,” he wrote.

Levine told Patchett he was excited by the immense potential of the ferry system when it was first proposed in 2015 — then disappointed that a huge chunk of the borough had been left out of the plans.

The pier on West 125th Street — where uptown’s fabled east-west thoroughfare meets the Hudson, and where the infrastructure for a new ferry landing is already in place — makes the site the ideal location for the further expansion of NYC Ferry operations, he wrote.

Besides, Levine added in the interview, providing riverboats so that residents, workers and visitors can zip up and down the Hudson makes good common sense: “They forgot half of Manhattan,” he said.

WHO NEEDS THE SUBWAYS?

EDC is currently wrapping up a ferry feasibility study it expects to release by the end of this year or by early 2019. The agency, which administers NYC Ferry, is examining additional possible landings and routes that could complement the existing system, and it plans to consider factors such as water depths, population density, travel time and existing access to mass transit in making the siting decisions.

“We appreciate the Council member’s proposal and will take it into account as we finalize the feasibility study,” said Stephanie Báez, EDC’s senior vice president of public affairs.

The review comes as EDC in August dramatically expanded its East Side service, giving boatloads of commuters two new routes to bypass the subway — and enjoy efficient rides complete with skyline vistas, brisk breezes and a fully-stocked bar.

First, it debuted a new embarkation point just north of Carl Schurz Park at the East 90th Street landing, whisking riders to the system’s two central hubs — 34th Street in just 16 minutes, then down to Pier 11 on Wall Street only 18 minutes later.

Then, it opened two newly built jetties in Stuyvesant Cove Park on 20th Street and Corlears Hook Park on the Lower East Side.

EDC projects that 400,000 passengers a year will pass through the East 90th Street dock, a million will hop aboard the Lower East Side route, and a total of nine million annual boat rides are expected systemwide by 2023, double the initial forecast.

None of that activity will take place on the West Side. To be sure, NY Waterway, a private Weehawken, N.J.-based firm, operates interstate river crossings from its terminals on Vesey Street in Battery Park City and Pier 79 on West 39th Street. New York Water Taxi, also privately owned, operates mostly sightseeing tours and hop-on, hop-off service for tourists from midtown west.

But NYC Ferry offers no nautical lines on the Hudson — even as three multi-building, skyline-defining, mega-projects, among the largest in city history, have been rising near its shores over the past decade.

Columbia University’s sprawling new 17-acre Manhattanville campus is taking shape a few block east of the 125th Street Pier. It occupies a land mass equal to the campus of the United Nations.

In Levine’s vision, a southbound ferry serving the uptown community would then berth at West 39th Street near Hudson Yards, a massive 28-acre private development going up atop two working railyards that’s six acres larger than Rockefeller Center.

It could then follow the currents downriver to the World Trade Center, a 16-acre complex with a footprint roughly the size of Lincoln Center.

Given that critical mass, demand for ferry service will be robust, Levine contends:

“They’re all major centers of employment, all newly developed, and all located along the West Side,” he said. “Any people going to work by car in those locations would be a disaster.”

A Columbia University spokesperson said ferry service would “offer growth opportunities for Harlem businesses.” It would also dovetail with the school’s active efforts to reduce auto traffic through bike sharing, carpooling and expanded intercampus shuttle bus routes.

“Cross-Hudson ferry service at the West 125th Street Pier could be an attractive alternative for northern New Jersey and Rockland County commuters to Harlem, Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, and beyond, many of whom currently view driving to Manhattan as their only viable option,” the spokesperson said.

Manhattanville’s rapid growth will soon usher a massive influx of students, staff and traffic into the area, Levine said. And unfortunately, commuters on the 1 train — who often have to wait as one, two or even three trains go by before they can board — will find that a much more common experience if the city fails to invest in West Side ferry service, he added.

invreporter@strausnews.com