Feature: New York Ferries: Today & Tomorrow

Monday, June 09, 2003

When the forthcoming new trio of Staten Island Ferryboats was announced about a year ago, they were described as being "Kennedy class," a description whose significance was more symbolic than factual. According to the conceptual drawings, they do indeed bear a passing resemblance to the Kennedy fleet - perhaps as much as the Merrill fleet did before it. But everyone who knows the Staten Island Ferry knows both the Kennedy class and its successor, the Barberi class, too. And when it comes to thinking about the next 35 years of crossings (the typical lifetime of a ferryboat), most regulars would probably prefer every reassurance that the newest boats would be more like the oldest (John F. Kennedy, American Legion, and Gov. Herbert H. Lehman).

Without question, their Voith-Schneider-propelled successors, the Andrew J. Barberi and the Samuel I. Newhouse, are excellent pieces of equipment for their mission. Steerable in any direction, they could make a landing with a lot less wear on the racks of pilings that form the slip. According to tide, wind, and current, a traditional screw-driven ferry might lean into the rack the moment it entered the slip, and glide on its rub rail all the way up to the dock - to a deafening and nerve-wrenching squeal, if someone has neglected to grease the planks, unequalled by ten thousand fingernails across the blackboard.

Events like these quickly differentiate the tourists from the regulars. The tourists behold a a sight and sound they never imagined, drinking in every consumable gulp - perpetuating the lore that a ride's best part is when the ferryboat goes bump. The regulars, conditioned to it daily, would probably describe it, as New Yorkers do, as aggravating.

The regulars, therefore, should have liked the new boats with their ultra-maneuverable, non-bumping cycloidal drives.

But with their decks almost entirely enclosed, the buslike vessels contribute 100% of their passenger-carrying capacity to passengers 100% of the time. On most days between December and March in New York, not many passengers would spend time on open decks anyway. In New York's frequently bitter winters, those exposed decks become dead weight. Is that any way to design a mass-transit system?

Still, the tourists come for the views, generally spectacular, and even hardened commuters secretly engage in boat-watching on their way across the harbor. And in the warmer weather, for maybe three-quarters of the year, riders collect on the open decks whenever they can. The seats at the fore and aft ends of the saloon deck, left and right on the bridge deck, are the first to fill during the onrush of summertime 9-to-5ers.

Back to the Future

Before establishing the brief for the new design, the city's Department of Transportation explored other options (including the possibility of refurbishing the existing Kennedy fleet) and gathered public opinion on the fleet as it stands. The surveys indicated that the open spaces and the classic ferryboat lines were preferred

Calling the new boats "Kennedy class" is really code, for "not like the buses." "By the time they're delivered," said Allen Chin, President of George G. Sharp Inc., designers of the boats, "they'll be given a class name of their own. We're just calling them 'the new Kennedy class' for the time being."

The new boats are a bit longer than the Kennedys - LOA 310 feet vs.294 for their predecessors, for example, with an estimated passenger capacity of 4476 against 3745 for the older boats. Part of that additional capacity comes by reducing the vehicular capacity - from 42 in three lanes to 30 in two lanes for the new boats. "The studies showed that passengers felt the main deck cabins were too narrow, so we widened them," said Mr. Chin, resulting in a narrower space for the vehicles. It's still a 30-vehicle increase over the capacity of the Barberis. The new ferries will be the first to have elevators, two of them, stopping at all passenger decks.

Belowdecks there are differences too, The new boats specify GM EMD ME16 G7B diesels - similar to the EMD 16-567 C power plants of the older boats, but more powerful and with improved emission controls, and now three of them instead of four. "(The Department of) Transportation is very pleased with their predecessors," said Mr. Chin, "they've been very reliable for a very long time."

The new boat would ordinarily run on two of the engines, driving two AC propulsion motors at each end equaling 10,000 horsepower, with the third a backup. Should one engine break down, it could be repaired while the boat is underway using the other two. "We were very concerned about keeping the boats on-schedule despite contingencies," said Mr. Chin.

Added the DOT's Capt. Pat Ryan, "If two engines went out for some reason, a single one of these powerful, turbocharged engines could keep the boat going nearly at full service speed."

Also for the first time on a Staten Islander, the forward propeller will be powered and contributing to the boat's propulsion in about a 20-80% ratio with the aft propeller, according to Mr. Chin.

Considering all the improvements to the propulsion system, "We are expecting a fuel consumption savings of about 10 gallons per hour," according to Capt. Ryan. "On average the three new boats will operate about 5,500 hours each annually," so doing the math reveals quite a number of gallons of fuel conserved.

While the new boats will be Kennedylike, compared the the Barberis, they'll be substantially different vessels on a number of accounts. Their seating arrangements will echo the Kennedy scheme, with open space fore and aft on the saloon deck (standing room only on the main deck), and the sides promenades of the bridge deck. But there, again, the similarities end. The new boats provide open deck space, for the first time, fore and aft on the Bridge deck, 430 square feet of it at each end.

They also add a fourth level, with a new cabin accommodating 582 passengers, and an expansive sprawl on the hurricane deck outside.

The implications for fresh-air lovers are inviting, and read almost like a payback for the confines of the Barberi class. The new boats will have all the open space of the Kennedys, and then some. The open deck up top will provide an unobstructed view, for the first time, of the entire sky above a Staten Island ferryboat.

Changing Times Again

"The general design was established before 9/11," said Allen Chin, "and we've made modifications with regard to conditions since then." The open-air space on the hurricane deck, for example, originally bounded by the pilot houses, has been cut back to a fenced-off area, deterring access by passengers to the controls. Doors to pilot houses and the engineroom are to be bulletproof.

A central control area belowdecks was also cited as a security measure, as was the design of the passenger seats. "The survey showed passengers liked the old wooden benches of the Kennedy boats," said Mr. Chin, "but the Coast Guard wouldn't allow that much wood today because it could support combustion." So a benchlike seat of non-combustible construction was devised. These seats provide additional concessions to security. The old-style benches sit on pedestal bases, closed in. "The space beneath the new seats will be completely open," said Mr. Chin, "so nobody can hide something. Of course, it also makes for an easier clean-up, if somebody spills a Coke."

Also discussed for security aboard is a system of concealed cameras - as many as sixty have been mentioned - feeding off to land-based monitoring centers to keep an eye on the boat.

And concerns for security make a conundrum of those vehicle lanes. "We'll keep the vehicle lanes of the present boats closed until our partners in security, the New York police and the Coast Guard, tell us they're comfortable about reopening them," said Tom Cocola, a DOT spokesman.

Nobody can predict when that time will come. But if the terrorist war goes on as long as the cold war did, about 50 years, and if the new boats remain in service as long as most Staten Island ferryboats, about 35 years, it becomes possible that the new boats may never use the vehicular capacity they've brought back to the crossing.

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