City officials toy with idea of commercial ferry routes

Elm City residents tired of driving through New York City to get to Long Island may have a cross-sound solution to their transportation headaches in the coming years.

City officials are currently exploring the possibility of establishing commercial ferry service from New Haven to Long Island — an idea that has been in discussion for years but that they say is just now beginning to seem viable. With the help of $100,000 in state and federal funds, the city has chosen a firm to conduct a feasibility study for a ferry service between New Haven and Port Jefferson in New York, New Haven City Planning Representative Karyn Gilvarg ARC ’75 said.

City officials are awaiting state approval of the consulting firm before proceeding with the study, which will focus on the viability of a 25-acre site — commonly known as the Magellan site — in New Haven Harbor for commercial ferry use, Gilvarg said. Planners are concentrating on the Magellan site, which lies on the southwest corner of East and Water streets, but she said other sites have not been completely ruled out.

Although in recent years regional planners have explored a number of possible ferry routes traversing the Long Island Sound, the New Haven to Long Island route’s ability to cut down on regional traffic makes it a priority for transportation planners, Gilvarg said.

“If you want to go to New Haven and you live on Long Island, you either come on the Bridgeport ferry or you drive through New York City and up the I-95 and the Connecticut coast,” she said. “You clog up some very important roads.”

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. anticipates that the ferry also will benefit the area immediately surrounding New Haven, city spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo said.

“Mayor DeStefano sees ferry service as a way to transport tens of thousands of people and get them off the interstate,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said. “Ferry service in New Haven would reduce crowding on the highways and fuel usage.”

But some transportation experts say that while ferry routes in the Long Island Sound have a well-defined and sustainable market, waterborne transportation does not reach nearly as large an audience as more traditional forms of commuting.

Kevin Wolford, project manager of the Long Island Waterborne Transportation Plan, an ongoing regional study investigating waterborne transportation options for the greater New York metropolitan area, said existing ferry routes from Connecticut to Long Island will not command nearly as large a market as land transportation, especially because many commuters are not willing to leave their cars behind when they go to work.

“It’s not a daily commuter route,” Wolford said. “It’s not a Long Island resident that’s using this service. Some of it is business, but it’s sporadic. Quite often it’s tourists and other avenues, such as college students going back to school. Would it allow a potential employee to work on the other side of the sound? Probably not.”

The New Haven ferry would run from the city’s harbor to Port Jefferson, where a similar ferry from Bridgeport already docks. The company that operates the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson ferry has already expressed interest in running a New Haven-Port Jefferson route, Gilvarg said. Last summer, the company conducted a test run and calculated that a one-way trip from New Haven to Port Jefferson would take approximately one hour and 15 minutes, she said.

A higher-speed ferry has also been tested out between Long Island and Connecticut and would take approximately 40 minutes, albeit at a potentially higher cost, Wolford said.

A one-way ticket on the ferry currently operating between New Haven and Bridgeport costs $14.50, while a round-trip ticket costs $21. The ferry also can accommodate cars and motorcycles at a premium.

Although the project has been in the works for a few years, the combination of a recent $5 million grant from the federal government to build a ferry as well as a state transportation administration receptive to the idea have helped propel the project forward, Gilvarg said. She said an increasing awareness of the importance of alternative means of transportation after Sept. 11, 2001, has also fostered an increased interest in ferry travel.

“I think [Sept. 11] changed people’s thinking about [ferries],” Gilvarg said. “When the rest of the transportation network broke down because it was bombed, people paid attention to ferries. They don’t have a fixed rail or a highway that you could bomb … [which] gives you enormous flexibility.”

Students had mixed reactions to the proposal.

Long Island resident Shara Yurkiewicz ’09 said taking rail transportation would still be more convenient for many college students, since rail lines have stops in many Long Island communities inaccessible by ferry travel alone.

“I don’t think it would be much help to anyone on the South Shore,” she said. “I take the Metro-North to Grand Central and then the [Long Island Rail Road] to my house. I would never use the ferry.”

Andy Wagner ’09 said the convenience of being able to drive his own car to school would discourage him from using the ferry service.

“I think it would be useful, but I don’t think a lot of people would use it,” Wagner said. “There’s a Bridgeport ferry service … [but] from where I live it’s an hour and half door-to-door, so it really wouldn’t shave off that much time.”

But Chris Tingue ’08 said that if the new ferry service is not significantly more expensive than other regional ferries, a New Haven-based ferry would be useful for moving in and for visits from parents.

“It would all come down to the cost right now,” he said. “If it was at the same price, just out of convenience I would definitely do it.”

The feasibility study is slated to take two years to complete, and a timetable has not been drawn for the overall project, which Gilvarg said is still in its preliminary stages.

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