Truth is, though, back then I never gave much thought to how critical the ferry was to our public transportation infrastructure – even as I was using it five days a week.
Fast forward a number of years and I found myself on the City Council representing the mid-Island, while Mike McMahon - now our District Attorney – repped the North Shore. He grabbed the mantle and took the lead on all things ferry-related, including the fight to expand service. Mike was out of the Council for years when Richenda Kramer and Nicholas Zvegintzov, two members of the St. George Civic Association's Ferry Riders Committee, decided the baton would be passed to me and requested a meeting to make the case, yet again, for expanded service.
Though it was late in my Council tenure and the ferry was not really in my bailiwick, their arguments were so cogent and so passionate that it stirred a visceral reaction in me. There was, I realized, a quickly closing window of opportunity to effect some real change before I left the Council. That “window of opportunity” took the form of an amazingly productive relationship with Council Speaker Chris Quinn, and I knew my standing with my Council colleagues would allow me to maintain a veto-proof majority of support for my bill.
This is not rocket science, but when negotiating a piece of legislation – or, for that matter, when negotiating anything – one doesn’t start with what one will eventually be willing to settle, one starts by asking for quite a bit more. For me, quite a bit more was 24/7 service. At least, it was in the beginning; I was soon to change my mind.
I started thinking about how things were done in up-and-coming cities and communities throughout the country. They weren’t forced to roll up their sidewalks at 1:00 or 2:00 AM as we were; they recognized the importance of round-the-clock access if they were to attract the young and hip kind of folks that would inject new life in older – and staler – areas. Why should Staten Island be any different? Granted, the ridership for the overnight service was low, but that was easily explainable: who would go to Manhattan knowing that if they missed their boat they’d be forced to cool their heels in a cavernous terminal for another sixty minutes?
Eventually, after strenuously making the case both publicly and behind closed doors, we enacted Local Law 88 of 2013, which mandated that ferries would depart St. George and Whitehall every thirty minutes, and even more frequently during times of peak demand. Mayor Bloomberg, a staunch opponent, imposed a poison pill of sorts by insisting on a tiered expansion of service. Not perfect, but it was the best we could do.
By 2015, the nail-biting commenced over whether or not the new Mayor, Bill de Blasio, would fund the full implementation of the law I introduced and nursed through passage. Perhaps because of our two-decade old working relationship and his awareness how important this was to me, or perhaps because it was simply the right thing to do, the Mayor fully funded the expanded ferry service. It was the last piece of legislation I enacted as a Council Member, and I give him abundant credit for this, particularly because sources later told me there was opposition on the agency level within his administration.
It was a great victory, but now a new game has begun - and the truth is there is still more Staten Island Ferry work to be done.
We met a few weeks ago with the Staten Island Ferry Quality of Life Task Force, a group dedicated to “addressing quality of life concerns on the Staten Island Ferry.” Frequent ferry riders all, they presented me with a thorough report on conditions they confront every day – from overflowing garbage cans in the plazas to unsafe and unclean bathrooms on the boats to addressing the homeless population around the terminals, and everything in between. Subsequent to that meeting, I wrote to Mayor de Blasio and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg requesting a chance to meet and discuss these issues, in the hopes of working collectively to improve the everyday experience of ferry riders.
But our work cannot stop there.
The coming tourist wave dictates that things must change even more. The opening of the Empire Outlets, the New York Wheel and Lighthouse Point will signal a new era for the Staten Island Ferry, one in which it will carry millions of tourists to our shores, even as the ferry continues to grow into a world-class attraction in and of itself. Yet, we must never lose sight of the fact that the ferry is the most consistent means of mass transit our borough has, and we must ensure that Islanders travelling to and from work do not have their daily commutes drastically impacted by this North Shore waterfront revitalization.
The time to address these concerns is not next week, next month or next year; the time is now. I have already written and asked to begin these conversations, and to lay the groundwork to make these any and all necessary changes and much-needed improvements. We’ll give more details in the coming days, but for now – stay tuned.