New York City taxpayers have been subsidizing ferry rides at a much higher rate than previously reported, according to a new audit released by City Comptroller Brad Lander on Wednesday.
The 50-page report found the city underreported nearly $224 million worth of expenses dating as far back as 2015, when former Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the ferry service. Among those were the actual cost of the service: while riders paid $2.75 per trip in 2021, those rides costs the city $12.88 per trip, according to Lander’s report. Previously, the city Economic Development Corporation, which manages the service, said the true cost of each ride was only $8.59.
The release of the audit — which began before Lander took office this year — adds another wrinkle to a service long described as a money pit.
While all mass transit is subsidized, the ferry has been heralded by de Blasio and current Mayor Eric Adams as an important but costly city service, despite previous reports showing ferry ridership skews whiter and wealthier than other forms of mass transit in the city.
“It’s essential that the policy conversation be based on accurate reporting and EDC’s quarter-billion dollar underreporting rendered that impossible,” Lander said Wednesday at a press conference next to Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan.
Lander added he’d rather subsidize daily commuters that use the ferry than tourists or weekend beach-goers, and believe the city should create a pricing structure for different types of riders.
“There’s a good reason for thinking differently about which one we’d want to subsidize and which one we wouldn’t want to subsidize, and if you don’t know the full cost, you don’t know how much you’re subsidizing you can’t make that policy decision reasonably,” he said.
The mayor’s office pushed back on the comptroller’s assertions.
“Concerns around the system’s finances are well known – the prior administration rushed NYCEDC to establish a large and complex ferry system, and we are keenly aware there is room for improvement,” Charles Lutvak, spokesperson for the mayor’s office, wrote in a statement. “We are actively working on an innovative plan to write a new chapter for the ferry system centered on true financial sustainability and access for communities that need it.”
The comptroller’s office found the EDC’s accounting practices didn’t include depreciation in its total costs, and removed capital expenses after 2018 — the year the city spent $300 million — in new ferries and improving the service. The report also found that the city overspent on one ferry by nearly $3 million without asking for a refund on the difference.
In response to the comptroller’s audit, the EDC wrote that it disagrees with the findings, arguing it follows generally accepted accounting standards. But the quasi-government agency said it will “provide new financial and operational reporting” online going forward.
“NYCEDC has consistently sought to ensure careful stewardship of public funds and has demonstrated a strong commitment to getting the best deal for the city,” NYCEDC’s Chief Financial Officer Fred D’Ascoli wrote in a letter included with the audit.
Lander’s audit recommends the city issue a request for proposal for a new operator of the ferry service. The city is in agreement with that suggestion, and said this summer it will launch a bidding process.