The pilot ferry service, which operates between Midtown, Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, has already attracted more than 715,000 riders since paid service began at the end of June — nearly twice as many as estimates, officials announced at a City Council hearing Wednesday.
Advocates and council members said they believe the numbers would soar even higher if commuters could more easily transfer to buses and subways and pay their $4 fares with a simple MetroCard swipe, just like travelers on JFK's AirTrain and the PATH trains.
Tim Sullivan, a senior policy advisor to Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, said the city is already exploring the MetroCard idea.
“We’d like to see if we can apply that to the ferry system as well,” he said.
The MTA confimed it has been engaged in preliminary talks about integrating ferries with the rest of the city's transit system, but it is not clear if it would work with unlimited MetroCards.
Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, agreed that allowing customers to pay for ferries with the same MetroCard as they can use to pay for other forms of public transportation would be a major boost.
“Every other ferry system in the world is integrated,” he said.
But while Sullivan said the administration was “extremely pleased” with the ferry's progress so far, he said it is still far too early to declare victory.
More than 19,400 trips were taken on the ferry last week — more than twice the projected total of 8,900 trips per week.
It will likely take several years of study to determine whether the ferry is sustainable, he said, especially given the unseasonably warm winter.
The city currently provides the ferry’s operator, Billybey Ferry Company, with a subsidy of more than $3 million-a-year as part of the three-year pilot program.
"One of the keys to ensuring the long-term success of this service, and to future expansions of ferry service throughout the five boroughs, is reducing the per-rider subsidy to as close to zero as possible," he said.
The ferry has also been his with soaring fuel prices, further driving up operating costs.
“It’s severely constraining Billybey’s resources here,” said David Hopkins, vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, who also testified on the city's behalf.
But City Councilman James Vacca, chair of the Transportation Committee, urged the administration to move quickly and begin plans for expansion before the pilot program ends to bring new options to "transit-starved" waterfront areas.
“Many neighborhoods throughout the city feel that they’ve waited so long,” he said.