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Water ferry’s success prompts call to expand Outer Harbor service

Even though the calendar said Sunday was the first day of spring, some local leaders standing on the Buffalo waterfront were already thinking about summer as they called for doubling or tripling the ferry service between Canalside and the Outer Harbor to eliminate last year’s long waits.

Queen City Bike Ferry, which proved more popular than expected, carried more than 50,000 bicyclists and pedestrians between Canalside and the Outer Harbor in 2015. Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said officials had hoped to see 20,000 passengers last season, but reached that goal before July 1. The ferry attracted more than 9,000 people in its first three weeks of operation.

“But with the popularity came a new dilemma. With limited capacity and great demand, passengers were often left on the shore waiting in long lines, unclear of when they could return,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, adding that some passengers waited as long as an hour, turning what would have been a pleasant trip into a frustrating one.

They want more boats added so that instead of the currently slated 30-minute interval, ferries depart every 15 or even every 10 minutes.

Tullis Johnson, a Buffalo bicyclist from the Tweed Riders who joined Ryan and Higgins for Sunday’s news conference, said the long lines dissuaded him from taking the boat, adding that he “would take the ferry if they doubled the service. I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

Higgins said Queen City Water Ferry began transporting passengers along the waterfront in 2011, but had a lengthier route, attracting 5,000 passengers in that first season. The more direct route between Canalside and the Outer Harbor was added in 2015 in an agreement between the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and New York Power Authority, the owner of the landing site at First Buffalo Marina.

In a written release issued after the news conference, Harbor Development Corp. Chairman Robert Gioia said the agency already is working on improving the ferry service.

“Because of the success the service enjoyed throughout the summer, many weeks ago we began to make plans to expand the service during peak times for this upcoming summer,” Gioia wrote. “As an acknowledgment of the success of the service, ECHDC initiated a capital improvement project to create a new and more efficient ferry landing on the Outer Harbor. That project, which is underway now, has a total budget of $825,000.”

That money will fund a dock expansion that adds a paved pedestrian pathway, signs, benches, planters and bike racks.

But Higgins said this will only shave about five minutes off the 30-minute round trip and that more needs to be done, adding another ferry if needed so they can grow the popularity of Canalside and Outer Harbor sites such as the historic lighthouse, Wilkeson Pointe, Times Beach, Tifft Nature Preserve and Buffalo Harbor State Park.

Ryan said people need to be able to rely on a boat coming every 10 or 15 minutes.

Those plans are in the works, said Sam Hoyt, Empire State Development regional director. He said they have been working for weeks to address these concerns and have already entered into discussions with Queen City Ferry, which also offers history tours.

“During peak hours we recognize we have a capacity issue,” Hoyt said. “We are in discussions to assure another boat is available during peak crossings to eliminate the wait.”

“Last summer we hit the sweet spot,” said Ryan. “People in Buffalo want access to the water.”

“Often times you get stuck waiting to get back,” he added. “They only way we can make sure people don’t get stranded is to increase the frequency of the trips.”

Higgins said operators of the current ferry service did a very good job, but “if another vessel is needed, then so be it. What we are most concerned about is reliable, predictable ferry service.”

Ryan said the contract with Queen City Ferry was based on a much lower ridership and the harbor corporation may need to revisit the contract.

Both men said there was a pool of $5 million available from the New Power Authority and the harbor corporation and some of that money could be used to expand the ferry service.