By Stephen A. Famularo, PE, D.PE  

An inconspicuous transportation revolution is taking advantage of one of New York City’s greatest attributes: its robust waterways. With pre-pandemic subways and buses at near or full capacity and the highest commute time of any major U.S. city, New York sought options to bring the best service and quality-of-life to residents and commuters at the water’s edge. Placing priority on expanding citywide connectivity and modernizing infrastructure across all five boroughs, the waters around New York City have become integral to the solution. The strategic expansion of ferry-based infrastructure solves for a historically overburdened transportation network and, in a post pandemic world, offers commuters an open-air option capable of better ensuring social distancing measures. 

The NYC Ferry expansion project, originally named by the NYCEDC as the Citywide Ferry Service, was announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in 2015 with goals to relieve part of the load of the city’s transportation system while connecting 20+ waterfront communities, many of which had historically been considered “transit deserts”. The plan would provide affordable and convenient transit options for communities, support growing neighborhoods, connect people to jobs and economic opportunities throughout the city, and increase the resiliency and redundancy of its transportation network.

Until this recent expansion effort, the City’s ferry service had two main roles within the transportation system: (1) providing additional commuter capacity in routes that had become overcrowded with prohibitive traffic/delays, and (2) providing targeted relief for commuters affected by an abrupt loss in ground transportation service (situations like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy).

NYCEDC launched the first phase of NYC Ferry system in May of 2017 with McLaren Engineering Group contracted to provide engineering consulting services for the development, investigation, planning, design, coordination, permitting, procurement, and construction administration of 11 new ferry landings and the restoration of two others. 

The project came with a strict construction deadline and a few unique challenges. First, the team would be working on 13 landings with separate owners, meaning 13 individual approvals, inspections, and permitting processes to coordinate should the ferries be constructed upland. Second, prefabricated barges were already in the process of being constructed prior to the team’s involvement, making the design dependent on specifications created by other entities. Third, the entire structure needed to be resilient and adaptable in order to make the ferry system work as a mass transit hub and an emergency relief service option. To combat these challenges and create a unified ferry system that was adaptable and resilient, McLaren developed an innovative standardized system consisting of a prefabricated floating barge, canopy, steel piles, fenders, gangway, and passenger amenities.

To reduce coordination with individual property owners, the gangways were designed not connected to land, but instead sitting on an independent pile cap. This reduced the need for coordination, inspection, drawing research, and analysis of each site, enabling the team to remain on track with time. The connection from the barge to the upland, by a gangway, is independent of the existing bulkhead, esplanade, or platform. By installing a mini-platform adjacent to the land, all loads are isolated away from the existing structure. This small footprint also allows the landings to be easily removed and relocated if ridership demands suggest adjustments to the route.

The design also upgraded NYC Ferry System’s ability to withstand extreme environmental events and facilitate quick responses due to its inherent flexibility – from both an engineering standpoint and an operational one. The isolation of the floating barge structure from upland components, design of minimally restrained gangways, and inclusion of contingency features all contribute to improving functionality and durability when faced with extreme conditions. The floating barge is the primary means of protecting the terminal against damages that could jeopardize ferry service after extreme storm events. The most recent FEMA Flood Insurance maps available identify that the water levels anticipated with a 100-year storm would overtop the seawall at all the terminal locations considered. Thus, any non-watertight electrical or mechanical components located on land or a fixed pier at the upland elevation would be subject to severe water damage that would make the terminal inoperable for several days to weeks. By providing a floating barge structure and hinged gangway seated on this barge, the barge deck and portions of the gangway become safe surfaces to mount.

The new design and construction of all 11 landings including Astoria, Roosevelt Island, Long Island City North, Atlantic Ave/Brooklyn Bridge Park, Red Hook/Atlantic Basin, Bay Ridge, Rockaway, Soundview, East 90th Street, Stuyvesant Cove/East 20th Street and Corlears Hook/Grand Street, were completed on time and are ready to connect residents and commuters across the city as post-pandemic activities begin to resume.

Currently, McLaren is working on the next round of NYC Ferry System improvements including renovation of two facilities and the design and installation of three additional landings. They are also leading the development of a new homeport and maintenance facility for the fleet at Atlantic Basin in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The development of this new site (Homeport II) will provide proper care and protection for approximately 40 vessel slips, and include utility and finger piers for fleet maintenance, and offer repairs and inspection with an additional travel lift. This centralized location will offer protection from vessel traffic in the Buttermilk Channel. 

For the feasibility phase of the Homeport II project, marine engineers and in-house divers deployed an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) to measure the waves, wakes, and current velocities caused by environmental conditions and passing vessels. This in-house tool collected information for two months and relayed detailed site data that McLaren’s design team used to develop the facility layout for both day-to-day serviceability and long-term resiliency. 

Planned completion of the landings for the NYC Ferry System expansion is set for 2022 with the first phase of Homeport II (19 Slips) coming online in Spring of 2023.

Stephen A. Famularo, PE, D.PE  is Vice President of Marine Engineering at McLaren Engineering Group. 

This article was originally published in May 2021.