A ‘New Chapter’ for NYC Ferry

Hornblower Group will continue as operator of the NYC Ferry service under a newly negotiated contract designed to make the ferry system more equitable, accessible and financially sustainable.

By Eric Haun

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New York City has awarded Hornblower Group a new contract to continue as operator of the NYC Ferry service after the deal was put up for rebid.

The 38-vessel NYC Ferry system is the nation's largest passenger-only ferry fleet, serving about 7 million riders annually with six routes that collectively span 70 nautical miles and touch all five city boroughs.

Hornblower, which has served as NYC Ferry's operator since the service was launched in 2017, was awarded the new contract from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) on Tuesday before its existing deal runs up at the end of September. The new contract is for five years and includes two three-year expansion options.

Plans to rebid and negotiate a new operating contract were revealed in July 2022 as part of New York City Mayor Eric Adams' sweeping plan to improve the service, which had come under fire for its narrow reach, financial mismanagement and high cost to taxpayers. An audit by City Comptroller Brad Lander had found city taxpayers subsidize about $13 per ferry passenger.

“We are a five-borough administration, and we want all New Yorkers to get where they want to go as efficiently as possible, especially when using transportation like our ferry system,” Adams said. “Last year, we announced the ‘Ferry Forward’ plan to make our ferry system more equitable, accessible and financially sustainable. And now, we’re delivering on our commitment with upgrades like free onboard WiFi, better real-time updates for passengers, expanded in-app language services and greater accessibility. Without question, this contract marks a new chapter in our ferry system.”

The city said per passenger subsidy is currently on pace to be reduced by nearly 30% by 2025, and the newly awarded operating agreement will decrease cost to the city through features that boost ridership and expand NYCEDC’s access to NYC Ferry revenue streams such as farebox revenue, advertising and concessions. NYCEDC oversight will also be improved with greater transparency and control on operations and cost centers.

Credit: NYC Ferry

The new deal will also allow NYC Ferry to pursue engine upgrades that will result in up to 10% fuel savings for more than half the fleet, the city said. In addition, Hornblower use machine-learning to predict and optimize vessel maintenance

The new operating agreement will also further establish NYC Ferry as a local maritime career pipeline through partnerships with the Department of Education, CUNY and SUNY schools. Hornblower will expand community engagement to grow diverse ridership, and will spend at least 15% of its total compensation under this agreement with minority- and women-owned business enterprises.

Hornblower Group CEO, Kevin Rabbitt, said, “As the founding operator of NYC Ferry in 2017, we look forward to building upon the achievements of the system’s record-setting success in a new phase, including implementing Mayor Adams’ Ferry Forward vision to create a more equitable and financially sustainable system. We proposed and look forward to executing an innovative long-term strategy for NYC Ferry that drives ridership among underserved communities, reduces operational costs and maximizes value to city taxpayers.”

“Thanks to Mayor Adams’ leadership and the Ferry Forward Plan, ridership is at an all-time high while access and affordability have been enhanced,” said NYCEDC President & CEO Andrew Kimball. “By partnering with Hornblower, we will bring NYC Ferry to its next phase with even more onboard amenities, while continuing to bring down costs and increase revenue.”

Credit: NYC Ferry

The NYC Ferry fleet

Hornblower was awarded the NYC Ferry contract in March 2016. Its commitment to deliver the system by summer 2017 required an unprecedented fleet build up. Thus, the NYC Ferry fleet was created quite quickly, growing from zero vessels to 16 by the end of 2017. The two yards tapped to build the service’s first batch of vessels were Metal Shark in Jeanerette, La., and Horizon Shipbuilding in Bayou La Batre, Ala.—the latter of which was acquired by the former partway through the NYC Ferry build program.

Later on, other yards, including Gulf Craft in Franklin, La., Halimar Shipyard in Morgan City, La., Breaux Brothers in Loreauville, La.; and St Johns Ship Building in Palatka, Fla., also built vessels for the NYC Ferry fleet. By the end of 2020, the NYC Ferry fleet had expanded to 38 vessels.

The NYC Ferry fleet is comprised of two vessel classes: the 86-foot-long T-class and 96-foot-long K-class. All of the aluminum-hulled catamarans, including the 150-passenger and 350-passenger ferries, were designed by Incat Crowther.

Since NYC Ferry’s launch, all vessels have used EPA Tier 3 Engines, and there are now two vessels with EPA Tier 4 Engines, which were the first passenger vessels of their kind in New York harbor. All vessels are powered by Baudouin diesel engines.

Fun fact: Each NYC Ferry vessel was named by second grade classes from throughout New York City. The vessel names and classes are below:

September 2023