The Takeover of New York Harbor

Friday's front page New York Times featured a striking, above the fold photograph: a picture of a floating US AIR airliner floating in the Hudson River with hoards of passengers standing on its partially submerged wings. A lone boat was in the photograph: a NY WATERWAYS ferry which had just arrived. Indeed, the first vessels to respond to the site were vessels from NY WATERWAYS. These were first responders by definition.

That evening NJ Governor Jon Corzine held a press conference. He referenced the ferry crews by saying, "Their first response was to make sure that those who were on the plane were looked after immediately." Gov. Corzine continued, "Then, obviously, the work of the first responders – the New Jersey State Police, the New York Police Department, and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey – they all came together in a remarkable way to make sure that life was not lost." (Italics mine) "Obviously" indeed.

I looked at all the photographs of the scene. While the plane was still relatively afloat, the only responders I saw were the NY WATER WAYS vessels. The photos that showed governmental vessels were taken after the plane had sunk considerably, and most of the passengers had been put on the ferries.

On Friday morning at 11:40 AM Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference to honor the "first responders." Behind him were cops, coast guard, fire officials – a whole platoon of uniformed men. Lost in the crowd were two skippers of the two ferries which responded first.

The mayor first praised the USA AIR pilot, Cap. Sullenberger; indeed, to do otherwise would have been farcical since the pilot was truly the hero of this story by every account of every passenger and witness – this is the first water ditching in over three decades with no fatalities. He said he would present Cap "Sully" a key to the city, but couldn't do it then since the NTSB gag order prevents the captain from being there. He then praised and handed certificates to representatives from the NYPD, Scuba Divers, Firefighters, chopper pilots, Port Authority representatives, FDNY Paramedics.

Oh, I almost forgot, he also mentioned that the ferry guys helped out too. What were they? Potted plants? Chopped liver?

Now I want to be clear. I'm not denigrating brave or effective or even heroic efforts by municipal or state or federal emergency personnel. Every day Coast Guardsmen risk their lives to save boaters. Firemen risk their lives to save people in burning buildings. EMS people perform a valuable emergency medical service usually under stressful or even dangerous conditions.

BUT…….I find it appalling that elected officials such as Bloomie & Corzine consider the ferrymen an afterthought. And it's not like they deliberately maligned private vessel responders, but it's almost like they think private boat captains are invisible or that they don't count. I'm reminded of the Dunkirk boatlift, where British soldiers, retreating from the Germans were evacuated – not by the British Navy – but by yachtsmen, fishermen, English smack skippers. At least elected officials like Churchill in those days gave credit where credit was due.

A reporter actually had to prompt Bloomie into giving credit to the ferry crew. Bloomberg could not credit them without pointing out how these crew members work under the direction and guidance of Coast Guard and harbor police in developing coordinated contingency plans for rescue. In short, these private companies are co-opted by the government.

In fact, NY Waterway is a private company that enjoys a semi-monopoly status. It works closely with the Port Authority and local NJ waterfront cities in order to run its ferry. It does this because the government makes it close to impossible to run a ferry unless you play ball with the government.

This brings me to the main point, to wit: the government takeover of the NY Harbor and its waterfront and its nearly 40-year stagnation. Once upon a time, there were dozens of private ferry companies, Hudson River day-line steamers, nightline steamers, steamers to Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Now there are only three plus the city-run Staten Island ferry plus the little yellow water taxi, a newcomer.

To some degree, this was true since the days of Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat. Then, in the early 19th century, the NY State legislature had granted to Fulton and his partner, Robert Livingston, a legal monopoly for all steamboat traffic in the Hudson. This monopoly was challenged and broken up by young Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the man who started the Staten Island Ferry, now owned by the city.

Most ferries, until the 1960's, were operated by railroads with terminals on the NJ bank of the Hudson. They are gone now. The government drove them out of business by taxing them to build highways to cater to the Detroit lobby, whilst the rails had to pay for their own infrastructure. The government also sided with the railroad unions to protect featherbedded obsolete jobs like firemen on electric or diesel trains. The Progressive Generation featured men like FDR, Gov. Tom Dewey, Mayor LaGuardia, and best of all….Robert Moses, the ultimate automobile-promoting politician.

Robert Moses began his career at the newly created Port Authority of NY & NJ. This was created in the teens to study the possibility of a government-funded rail tunnel from Brooklyn to NJ. The tunnel was never built, but the PA of NY&NJ lives on. New York city has the worst waterfront development of any city I have ever seen. Europe has beautiful waterfronts with restaurants, cafes, walkways, and marinas for private boats. There are whole live-aboard communities in France and Holland. And so do other cities in the US. But not New York. The Port Authority in concert with the New York City government has tied up the orderly transfer of property in a cats cradle of competing jurisdictional feuds.

When containerized shipping came in during the late '60's, freighters went to NJ where there was easier rail access and less corrupt unions. The piers along Manhattan were abandoned for thirty years. Most rotted away or were burned in arson-related fires by owners who were not allowed to develop the properties for new uses because of the need for "environmental impact studies" by the Port Authority and other government toads. Then came political fights between the "conservatives & liberals"; i.e. between the entrenched politically connected real estate developers of the NYC Establishment who want condos and the entrenched politically connected academic/environmentalist NYC Establishment who want parks. What we have now is a decaying waterfront that is not used by anyone. There are exceptions. The Chelsea piers, which were the old White Star Line docks built for the Titanic, Olympic & Britannic liners, and are now refurbished with sports emporia and restaurants. We have the South Street Seaport, with restaurants and malls. And we have the west side walk way for the greenies. The Brooklyn waterfronts are mostly in shambles and abandoned, except historic Civil War era Red Hook, which only in the last ten years has flowered, mostly because it was so dangerous and crummy, only artists were crazy enough to live there.

It seems nothing can get done unless it's a billion-dollar project brokered by connected people. I work at a major local radio station here. Once when Bloomie visited to do a live show, I asked him why NYC doesn't allow small marinas like most other cities. His answer was fatuous and ignorant. He said because of the fast currents. Nonsense. There used to be the millionaire commuter yacht docks at 23rd street in the East River, and another off Wall Street. And his answer does not explain why, on the Hudson (also called North River) there is the 79th street boat basin……..ah…… but that is a NY Parks Dept. facility built during the WPA. His answer also doesn't explain why on the NJ side there is a well-developed waterfront with private luxury condos and marinas AND public spaces. I'm talking about the area where Marlon Brando's On the Waterfront was filmed 50 years ago – Weehawken, Hoboken and Jersey City. This area is now hot.

New Jersey was slightly different. During the last twenty years they voted semi-free-market politicos into office. They managed to disentangle themselves somewhat from the Port Authority machine. But still, developers have to do big condo projects with the blessing of government.

Which brings us back to the ferry story. Twenty years after the railroads shut down the last ferry in 1967, one Arthur Imperatore started the NY WATER WAY as a private venture for his upcoming Port Imperial, a mega development "privately managed Venetian City." This went bust, but the ferry remained and got a huge boost after 911 when the Hudson & Manhattan PATH Tubes (a subway) shut down. And so NY WATERWAY then got a lucrative FEMA directed contract, "in the interest of the commuting public." This encouraged him to expand his business by taking a horrific debt load. But what the government giveth, the government taketh away, because the PATH Tubes reopened, boat riders went down, and Imperatore almost went belly up since he had to pay interest on his vast debt, plus $50,000 a month extortion fee to allow him to "operate" and charge $3.50 to his customers, whilst the taxpayer funded Tubes charge $1.50. And so Imperatore, no fool and no stranger to the NYC style of graft played ball with the THE MAN.

To me it seems a no-brainer. New York City comprises the mainland and some 42 islands – not just Manhattan, Staten, and Long Islands. Water transport and water recreation makes sense and would be profitable. The main obstacle is expensive bureaucratic regulation and excessive passenger boat-licensing fees. Had the city taken a free market approach as they did in the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth century, we would have as vibrant a waterfront as does Venice. But first the government has to step aside and allow real people the freedom to make a living on the water as they used to.

But we can't have that, can we now? If we allow freedom on the water, the next thing you know we'll have private first responders that will take all the credit when planes ditch.

Or worse.

We'll have a tougher time closing down the East River to every private terrorist sailboat every time the UN General Assembly meets.

Or worse still.

We could have crazy goose hunters with 10 gauges in john boats hanging out in Flushing Bay by LGA Airport violating federal waterfowl limit laws, shooting all those overpopulated Canada geese that get sucked into jet engines.

January 17, 2009