Bill de Blasio’s run for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president may have collapsed soon after it was launched, but he has emerged from the wreckage to announce a more modest goal: running for a seat in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, we’ve received news of another kind of wreckage from de Blasio’s term as mayor.
According to a recent report issued by City Comptroller Brad Lander, the city’s Empire Development Corporation massively understated the cost of a ferry network program that was one of de Blasio’s major transit initiatives. The report found that the EDC, which financed the operation, had understated the cost of the program by almost a quarter of a billion dollars from its inception in July 2015 to the end of last year, spending $758 million in this time period but only reporting $534 million in expenses.
This new expense worked out to $12.88 in subsidies per ferry rider — several times more than MTA buses or subways. Yet riders are charged the same $2.75 fare.
The ferries never made much sense, anyway. Ferries are slower than trains, burn prodigious amounts of polluting fuel and have low passenger capacities: The ferries used by the city’s service could carry only 150 to 350 passengers — less than two full subway cars.
Moreover, ferry ports have poor connections to the subway network, making them only really useful for people who live along the waterfront — and waterfront residential communities in New York are generally relatively rich. The longest ferry route, from downtown Manhattan to Rockaway, operated largely as a more pleasant, but scarcely faster, alternative to the A train for the largely well-off beach communities that lived near the Rockaway ferry terminal.
Sure enough, few New Yorkers have used ferries, and surveys found that they are substantially wealthier than average — not the sort of people who should get expensive subsidies.
Despite the ferry system’s near-uselessness, de Blasio made it the centerpiece of his transportation agenda, repeatedly bragging about it in speeches. Meanwhile, he ignored many more pressing problems, such as speeding up MTA buses, which are ridden by far more New Yorkers and which often scarcely outpace walking speed during rush hour.
Though de Blasio didn’t control the MTA, he did control the city’s Department of Transportation — which controls New York’s street layouts — is. De Blasio could have ordered the department to set aside far more exclusive bus lanes, replacing far less productive uses for street space, such as free parking spaces for cars whose owners almost never use them. But under de Blasio’s leadership, new bus lanes advanced at a glacial pace; and de Blasio did little to address related problems such as city employees’ abuse of parking placards to park in bus lanes.
The ferries are just one example of de Blasio’s fauxgressivism, mouthing progressive rhetoric while really running the city for the benefit of well-off residents like himself. For instance, de Blasio spent much of his second term leading a crackdown on the e-bikes used by many food delivery workers — possibly thanks to the influence of one Upper West Side investment banker who made his annoyance with them into a longstanding political campaign.
And despite his professed environmental sympathies, he gladly rewarded his supporters by making it easier to driver into Manhattan, handing out tens of thousands of free parking placards to city teachers as a reward for supporting his primary bid.
Thankfully, de Blasio is out of office, and we can only hope New Yorkers will have enough sense not to send him back to elected office again. But the cost of monstrously wasteful pet project like the NYC Ferry will hurt the city for years or decades to come. And Mayor Eric Adams, for his part, should recognize the ferry network as a failed experiment and stop paying for it.
Connor Harris is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he focuses on infrastructure, transportation, and housing policy.