Mayoral Hopeful John Liu Goes After City's Management of Staten Island Ferry Boats, Says Money is Being Wasted on Problematic Fleet

Comptroller John Liu, Staten Island Ferry.JPG
Sam Levin
City Comptroller John Liu, with State Senator Diane Savino (left) and City Council member Debi Rose at the Ferry Terminal in Staten Island.
City Comptroller John Liu took a trip to Staten Island today to criticize the city's management of new ferry boats that he says have been chronically out of service and have wasted taxpayers' dollars.

The announcement was a chance for Liu, who is expected to run for mayor in 2013, to get his name out on a transportation issue and appeal to the outer boroughs. But the comptroller also has a legitimate history with the topic -- he chaired the City Council Transportation Committee and convened several public hearings about the Staten Island Ferry before he became comptroller.

Liu's office argues that three "Molinari Class" vessels, which were put into service in 2005 and 2006, have been dysfunctional and have generated significant cost overruns. Liu also said he's not convinced that the city's Department of Transportation has any long-term plan to address this ongoing problems, which he says continue to impact commuters and waste public money.

The $139 million "Molinari Class" ferry boats have all experienced malfunctions with their "propulsion systems," Liu said, noting that one is now docked in Virginia where it has been out of service since December.

The city's DOT recently asked for $9.5 million in emergency contract funding to fix problems in this fleet. But Liu, who said he's not convinced that this funding would actually fix longstanding problems, only would sign off on a $3.2 million emergency contract to work just on the ferry in Virginia. If that repair is successful, the DOT can follow normal procurement procedures for funding repairs to the other two boats, Liu said.

"This latest saga with the ferries came to our attention last month when we were informed by the DOT that one of the ferry boats has been dry docked in Virginia for several months now," Liu told reporters at the Ferry Terminal in Staten Island this afternoon (yes, the Voice had to ride one of these controversial "Molinari" boats to get there). "The Department of Transportation has to do a far better job managing and overseeing the Staten Island Ferry operations...They need to come up with a long-term solution to address this longstanding problem."

In a request for funds from the DOT -- which Liu's office gave to reporters -- the city says that the the manufacturer of these boats is unable to support its own equipment and address the ongoing problems, which is why the DOT is bringing in a company called Siemens Industry that can provide the necessary equipment and resolve the situation.

Officials from the DOT today said this is a productive solution.

"This vendor will be a one stop shop for an integrated propulsion system on all three boats, an upgrade that will benefit over 65,000 passengers who rely on the Ferry each day. We clearly explained to the Comptroller why the new Siemens products are needed," agency spokesperson Scott Gastel said in an email.

The DOT says that this is the most prudent option, noting that the city is ending its relationship with the provider of the continually problematic parts.

But Liu, flanked by City Council member Debi Rose, State Senator Diane Savino, and Assemblyman Matthew Titone, said that he's not convinced.

"The Department of Transportation did not clearly explain how that contract with that much money would actually fix these outstanding problems," Liu said, noting that he rejected the city's $9.5 million request and only approved funding for one boat, to see if it will actually be successful. The DOT explains the situation differently, saying that the approved funding covers design and engineering costs for all three boats and the parts for one. The city says the remainder will be purchased through a negotiated acquisition. After we heard from the DOT, we reached out to Liu to clarify, and a spokesperson for the comptroller maintained that, as far as his office is aware, the funding it approved is only for one boat. If efforts with the first boat fail, Liu said he will explore all options to recoup funds tied to the boats' failures.

Either way, the Staten Island pols in attendance said they were frustrated with the situation.

"The buzz words in government these days are supposed to be efficiency, accountability, and transparency, particularly since we don't have a lot of money to spend," said State Senator Savino, who said the city needs a better solution, since attempts at repairing these boats keep failing.

The city, she said, should invest in more advanced boats. "If you're a ferry rider...you are more likely to hear the words today, 'Due to a service disruption, there will only be three boats on this schedule,' and that's a direct result of the lack of seaworthiness of these vessels...Let's stop pouring money down the drain."

[SamTLevin / @SamTLevin]

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