New York Cruise Lines, Inc., operators of the city’s Circle Line sightseeing boats, closed a deal to acquire New York Water Taxi from The Durst Organization.

The deal comes after a year that saw growing ferry ridership on New York waterways — and the pending arrival of the new public Citywide Ferry system in summer 2017. That put pressure on New York Water Taxi, which in 2016 warned it would not be able to compete with subsidized public ferries and their $2.75 fares.

New York Water Taxi’s brand features a hop on, hop off service connecting Manhattan’s West Side and East Side to Brooklyn.

“We wish to preserve and grow this business,” said Samuel Cooperman, president and CEO of New York Cruise Lines, in announcing the merger.

The deal also unites the Circle Line fleet, based on the midtown Hudson River at 42nd Street, with the Durst-owned Circle Line Downtown, which operated out of South Street Seaport on the East River. Adding those boats and staff “gives us the geographic scope and capacity to expand the world famous Circle Line sightseeing business," Cooperman said.

In all, the acquisition increases New York Cruise Lines’ fleet to 25 vessels, ranging from passenger ferries and a 70’ summer speedboat thrill ride, to traditional sightseeing, dinner-entertainment, and charter yachts.

New York Water Taxi co-presidents David Neil and Helena Durst said the merger will preserve New York Water Taxi’s routes and the jobs of its 200 workers. The company had warned in March 2016 that the city’s plans for public ferries might force it out of business. Neil called the merger “the best possible option for continuing the work of NYWT— for the customers who rely on New York Water Taxi's service, for its employees to continue working in the industry they love, and for the entire extended maritime family.”

“By joining NYCL, New York Water Taxi can continue playing a role in providing every resident and visitor high-quality ferry service in an unforgettable city,” Durst said.

Ferry operators reported growth in ridership during 2016, a trend industry observers attribute to an improved economy and commuters seeking new commuting options.

Ridership on East River ferries jumped by 8% in 2016 according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which is partnering with Hornblower New York to start the Citywide service this year.

NY Waterway reported carrying more than 4.6 million passengers on its New Jersey-New York routes during 2016, a 5.3% increase over 2015 that contributed to one of the best seasons in the company’s 30-year history, said Arthur E. Imperatore, the company president and founder. Imperatore said NY Waterway’s ferry and bus network has proven “the most reliable mass transit system in the metropolitan area," especially when winter weather disrupts other modes.

Meanwhile private and public ferry investment has mounted. The EDC and Hornblower are having the first Citywide Ferry vessels built at Horizon Shipbuilding Inc,, Bayou LaBatre, Ala., and Metal Shark at Franklin, La., for what will be a fleet of 19 catamarans at nearly $4 million each.

Next door in Franklin at Gulf Craft, ferry operator Seastreak LLC is having a $12 million, 600-passenger ferry built for its Highlands, N.J., to New York run, where ridership was up 10% in 2016.

That boat will step up competition on the long lower bay route with NY Waterway and its two new 400-passenger vessels, the Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross. For its Hudson River crossings, NY Waterway is upgrading its fleet of 149-passenger boats with new interiors and engines at a cost of $6 million.  

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.