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Commuters in N.Y. Find Alternative Way To Ferry to the Office

FED up with tractor-trailer spills on the George Washington Bridge and hours of idling in the Lincoln Tunnel, commuters from New Jersey are turning to ferries.

Swift catamarans are streaking across New York Bay from the Jersey Shore, houseboat-sized ferries are making their way across the Hudson River every 15 minutes, and swift ''water taxis'' may soon be zipping up and down the waterways that surround Manhattan.

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Over the past eight years, the private ferry business has grown from merely a concept to a growing business that now transports 22,000 people to Manhattan each day. ''The number of new riders increases every quarter,'' says Alan Olmsted, director of private ferry operations for the city's Department of Transportation.

On Tuesday, the City Council approved yet another ferry service from Staten Island to midtown Manhattan, where about 20,000 of the borough's residents work. Other new routes under development will bring commuters from Rockland County and Yonkers, about 20 miles north of New York, and from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan. Some entrepreneurs are also interested in providing new services from the Upper East Side to Wall Street, from the Bronx to Manhattan, and from Middlesex County, N.J., to Wall Street.

''With the new routes coming on, we see a doubling in ferry usage in the next few years,'' says Donald Liloia, supervisor of ferry programs for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. More commuters now use ferries at rush hour than use Amtrack service into Penn Station, he adds.

For the most part, the would-be ferry operators are finding City Hall is amenable to their proposals. ''They get cars off the highways, they improve urban mobility, they enhance the quality of life, they revitalize the waterfront and they help us toward our goals in the Clean Air Act,'' says Mr. Olmstead.

New York is not alone in using its waterways. San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle use ferries to relieve traffic congestion. Most of these cities, however, have had successful private ferry service for years.

Around the turn of the century, about 50 different private ferry lines operated around New York. Many of them were run by railroads, who needed to get passengers and freight across the Hudson River.

''The decline started in the 1930s and 1940s when bridges and tunnels replaced ferries,'' says Norman Brouwer, maritime historian at the South Street Seaport Museum. By the 1960s, the only ferries in New York were operated by either the federal government (Governors Island) or the city (Staten Island).

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THE modern revival began in earnest in December 1986 when New Jersey entrepreneur Arthur Imperatore Sr. started service between Weehawken, N.J., and midtown Manhattan. Today, Mr. Imperatore's New York Waterways operates 11 ferries and 56 buses that take passengers to the water's edge. He has sunk $20 million into the venture.

Passengers are pleased with the option of getting to New York by boat. ''It's clean, well lit, and you feel safe,'' says Bonnie Bona, who uses Imperatore's ferry to come into Broadway shows. The appeal for Stephanie Liban is the lack of hassle. ''There's no traffic,'' she points out as the M/V Robert Fulton makes waves across the Hudson.

Indeed, the only other traffic on the river is another ferry and a barge. And if the commuters turned around, they would get the best view of the famous Manhattan skyline as the setting sun turns the skyscrapers gold.

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