ST. GEORGE — Commuters will be able to board the Staten Island Ferry from the lower-level on both sides of the New York Harbor — in what officials hope will end a decade-long change that made commuters feel like cattle.
Starting in September, a $2 million project will allow riders to board from the lower-level at the Whitehall Terminal all day and at the St. George Terminal during the morning rush hour, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Borough President James Oddo announced Wednesday.
"In the beginning of a long work day or at the end of a long work week, to endure being treated almost like cattle all trying going in the same direction is just an added burden," said Oddo, who started pushing the city to bring back lower-level boarding last year after he got a letter from a pregnant rider detailing what it's like to have to push and shove her way onto the train while trying to board the boat to work.
With an expected four million extra tourists added to the already 23 million passengers who ride the boat per year when the New York Wheel and Empire Outlets open next year, Oddo said it was perfect time to allow lower-level boarding again.
"This is a small victory, but an important one for Staten Island Ferry riders."
From 7 to 9 a.m., commuters heading to Manhattan will be able to board the ferry from the lower-level and the Department of Transportation will also start to use a third door on the upper-level to improve the bottleneck, officials said.
"We have hundreds and hundreds of people trying to squeeze through just a few doors, it's particularly a challenge during rush hour," said de Blasio. "We are creating a long-term solution to address the congestion in the ferry terminal."
Department of Transportation officials said because Whitehall is smaller at only 12,000-square-feet, it will make it easier to switch to full-time lower-level boarding while complying with a federal law that requires passengers embarking and disembarking from the boats to remain separate, said James DeSimoe, Chief Operating Officer of the ferry.
Passengers and cars were once allowed to board the ferry using the lower level, but the practice was ended after 9/11 attacks and subsequent security concerns prompted the Maritime Transportation Security Act to be passed in 2002, said DeSimone.
St. George is larger with 60,000-square-feet, so it will require more work to get lower-level boarding running, DeSimone said.
The city will also add additional security measures, such as cameras.
"They've always had one of the longest commutes in the city, it's our job to make it better," said de Blasio.
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A 2013 study from the city's Economic Development Corporation found that the number of riders for each ferry is not limited by the boat's capacity — but by the amount of people who can board.
While boats can hold between 5,200 to 3,680 passengers, only about 2,600 passengers can get on while the doors are open without causing delays.