NY Waterway’s Arthur Imperatore has led a private ferry renaissance around Manhattan
On the highway approach to the Lincoln Tunnel and New York City, the last exit in New Jersey takes you to a road that winds around the south end of basalt cliffs along the Hudson River.
Once a two-mile stretch of abandoned railyards and shoaled, rotting pier slips, the river plain below the cliff is filling with new condominiums, apartments and parking garages. A New Jersey Transit light rail train hums back and forth every few minutes, and buses pull up to the NY Waterway ferry terminal.
From his glass-front office on the ground floor, Arthur Imperatore keeps an eye on his customers as they come and go for the ride a few minutes across the Hudson to West 39th Street in midtown Manhattan. Every 10 minutes during peak commuting time, and 20 minutes off peak, his blue- and-white ferries glide across the Port Imperial flats and kick up on plane crossing the river.
In coming months, those vessels will undergo upgrades and engine modernizations — part of some $26 million in capital improvements that NY Waterway is undertaking as the company and its 400 employees celebrate its 30th anniversary. The company will spend $6 million to repower and increase capacity on six of its workhorse 149-passenger catamarans.
“We’re the biggest private commuter ferry company in the United States. We’re a water and upland commuter system,” said Imperatore, whose company also operates red, white and blue shuttle buses that offer seamless connections to and from its midtown terminal. A federal grant will help pay for 30 new buses, giving the company a fleet of 80 buses.
Three decades into his second career, the entrepreneur, who turns 91 in July, talks like his creation has finally made it.
Reviving the New Jersey-New York private ferry industry was a new act for Imperatore, the youngest in a family of nine who started in the trucking business with his brothers after coming home from World War II. He made his fortune building A-P-A Transport Corp. into one of the most efficient and profitable enterprises in a tough industry. In 1986, Imperatore saw another opportunity when he bought an old rail yard along the Hudson River and had to figure out how to connect across the water with Manhattan.
“I owned two miles of land. That’s (Manhattan) where the money was. It was separated from New Jersey by the escarpment, down to the river plain. I bought it in 15 minutes, just like that,” Imperatore said. “Now, once I got it, what the hell was I going to do with it? What was I going to do to connect it to the big city? I had to make it work.”
In December 1986, NY Waterway began operating ferries on routes across the Hudson. The venture received a lot of local media attention. The last private ferry companies in New Jersey had gone out of business in the late 1950s after ridership was siphoned away by highway and train tunnels under the river. To some observers Imperatore had embarked on a romantic vanity project with a new, fast 77' boat built by Blount Boats, Warren, R.I.
“It was a composite aluminum and fiberglass. It was experimental,” Imperatore said. “I bought it because the man who built it (the late Luther Blount) was very good to us for making that boat available. We thought it would be high speed, but it had many deficiencies.”
Imperatore and the people in his organization started designing their own boats and systems for moving customers, drawing on decades of experience building equipment and moving freight.
“We had to design routes, and we were lucky in that we had a lot of routes you could do in eight to 10 minutes. We had to be able to predict arrivals and departures within 20 to 50 seconds. We had experience with trucks, designing trucks, and we knew a lot about time – the value of time,” said Imperatore, who adapted time-and-motion studies to build efficiencies into his trucking business as early as 1960.
“So I counted on the value of time. The efficiency of getting people from the upland onto a boat, and with a schedule that was predictable, and with the addition of buses,” he said. “We didn’t own buses, we had to charter buses, but it was the right thing to do.”
Even today, Imperatore said, he remains impressed by the challenges of running a marine business.
“Boats are very complicated animals. There are a lot of different systems,” he said. “We had a lot to learn. And we misdesigned a lot. First boat we designed was the Manhattan. We built it in 1987. The second boat we built in 1987, we made 700 changes. The retrofits are not easy. It took a lot of time, but we learned a lot.”
What Imperatore really likes to talk about are his people. In a 1982 Inc. magazine profile, Imperatore described his trucking company’s personnel policy. “My whole philosophy is that we build men. Incidentally, we move freight.”
NY Waterway recruits mostly blue-collar workers, training up through the ranks from deckhands to captains, Imperatore said.
“We had to be very precise in knowing what we wanted, for customer service, and in particular for safety. We’ve moved hundreds of millions of people, and we’ve never had one fatality,” he said.
“It’s the conduct of our people on the boats, their training. We have one of the toughest operating environments in terms of labor, traffic conditions, regulatory constraints and requirements. We gradually learned all of the refinements to tease out from mediocrity to the highest standards of reliability, safety, comfort and enjoyment for our customers.”
Imperatore’s venture began as New York was recovering from a long economic decline in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Over time, the ferries’ success awakened others to the potential of tying waterborne commuting to neighborhood redevelopment.
“They have been really instrumental with a lot of the redevelopment on the west side of the Hudson. The success of that hinges on the ferry service,” said Douglas Adams, chief operating officer of the Waterfront Alliance, a coalition of New York Harbor community groups that advocates for better uses of the city’s waterways. “They saw the potential and took the risk, and have done very well. We’re big fans.”
In its everyday business, the company demonstrated economic possibilities that drew other private investors into ferry services — and in time paved the way for a new citywide ferry system.
But the ferry business is tough, with high operating costs and extreme sensitivity to the metro area’s economic ups and downs. For a time in 2009, after the financial crash and Wall Street layoffs drove ridership down 12% and reduced company revenue by $800,000 a month, Imperatore considered Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
In 2005, NY Waterway had run into financial difficulty and entered an agreement with New York real estate lawyer William Wachtel who formed a new company, Billybey Ferry Co., to take over and operate some boats under a licensing and management fee system that endures today.
The Billybey partnership on the East River showed just how much demand there really is for alternative com- muting. “Actually ridership has been double of what the projections were,” said Adams of the Waterfront Alliance. Those numbers were used by New York City to design a public ferry system that will carry passengers for a subsidized $2.75 fare, on par with riding the subway.
This spring the citywide contract was awarded to Hornblower New York, the local subsidiary of the San Francisco-based company that runs excursion and charter vessels around Manhattan. NY Waterway and Billybey were among unsuccessful bidders for the citywide contract.
But Imperatore brushes off any idea that his company will be affected. His now long-established river routes, plus job growth in the city, are fueling a residential boom along the waterfront.
“From Fort Lee to Jersey City there are 30,000 new housing units being built or waiting approval. That’s a lot,” Imperatore said. “We’ll build whatever (new boats) we need.
“I’d like to do a ferry route from the north shore of Staten Island to midtown (Manhattan). It’s easy. I could do it in my sleep. St. George, Bayonne, World Financial Center, midtown, no subsidy. I almost think we could do that for $8 or $9.
“So what’s the future? We’ll be here.”