By Kathryn G. Menu
Despite finding some success late this summer, Hampton Jitney President Geoffrey Lynch announced this week the Peconic Bay Water Jitney would not traverse the waters between Sag Harbor and Greenport villages this summer, citing the financial cost of funding the water taxi service.
“Having said that, we don’t want to stop pursuing funding from outside sources, whether public or private,” said Lynch at a Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday night, adding the company would look into possible federal funding to help cover the capital costs needed to make the service a success.
The Peconic Bay Water Jitney – as it was coined by Lynch and his brother Andrew, and Response Marine owner Jim Ryan – made its official maiden voyage between Long Wharf in Sag Harbor and Mitchell Park in Greenport on June 28. The launch followed a contentious debate about the impact the ferry would have on the quality of life of both Sag Harbor residents and businesses, fears of a demand for parking and an increase in traffic dominating the discussion.
Ultimately, with the exception of former village board member Tim Culver, the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees signed off on the temporary use of Long Wharf for the service and passed a local law allowing passenger ferry service, which like vehicular ferries is illegal in Sag Harbor, for one summer season.
For the Lynch brothers and Ryan, this opportunity was viewed not only as a business venture, but also as an opportunity to study a new form of transportation on the East End – water based transportation in a region historically and recreationally celebrated because of its access to the water.
The ferry service, which ran on a single leased catamaran with 53 seats below deck and an additional 20 seats on the top deck, ran for approximately 85 days, ending on September 30.
According to Lynch, during that time, the ferry service carried 16,650 passengers, starting with just 212 at the end of June, growing to 5,404 passengers in July and peaking at 7,402 passengers in August before serving 3,632 passengers in September.
Lynch said that averaged to about 195 passengers a day, not the 250 to 300 passengers daily the company had hoped for, but “pretty good,” said Lynch. “And it certainly opens the door in terms of potential, but what the service needs is someone who has the financial resources to handle the start up costs for the appropriate vessel and can handle a loss over multiple seasons before the service is reliable enough for people to use on a regular basis.”
“We grossed about $160,000 in revenue,” said Lynch. “We spent a heck of a lot more than that.”
Financially, the 2012 operating costs were close to $500,000. According to figures provided by Lynch, the vessel lease of the John Keith from the New York Water Taxi Service cost the company $110,000, with insurance coming in at $41,000. Staff wages cost $86,000, with vessel fuel costs – admittedly higher than Lynch originally expected – at $91,000. The creation of a shuttle service for passengers cost the company $74,000 and docking fees in Sag Harbor and Greenport were a total of $24,000.
The ferry employed a total of 15 people during its service, including four United States Coast Guard licensed captains who operated the John Keith, six deckhands, two shuttle bus drivers, two call center customer care representatives and one person in charge of administration and accounting.
Lynch said the firm also utilized local contractors for fuel, mechanics, parts supplies, dock building, welding and print and radio advertising.
“Anecdotally, I would say the service was a huge hit,” said Lynch. “I heard very little negative feedback from customers, municipal agencies. I think we had one sailboater in the harbor who didn’t like the boat. Financially, it was certainly a bust for the Peconic Jitney and for myself and my brother who were funding this thing. Given that, we don’t have any immediate plans to go forward with the service for 2013.”
Lynch said this season was a learning experience, similar to what any new business venture would go through. He said one vessel proved not to be enough in order to keep the frequency of trips in line with demand and keep crowds at a minimum at docking sites.
In terms of the long-term goal of expanding the passenger ferry service to other waterfront ports on the East End, Lynch said another, larger vessel would be required to comfortably traverse the water.
Lynch said, based on credit card receipts, it did appear the service was favored locally – locals making up a majority of riders rather than just day trippers and tourists.
“So the appetite for this from a local perspective is there and the potential for tourists and other day trippers,” he said. “There was a much broader market out there and I am hopeful we can continue, but we cannot do it on our own.”
According to Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride, who praised the service and pushed for the temporary permit to allow it to run in the summer of 2012, if the Peconic Bay Water Jitney does come back to the village with a 2013 proposal, it will have to start from scratch in terms of earning approval to run the service, and run it from Long Wharf – newly acquired by the Village of Sag Harbor through a deal with Suffolk County.