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Ferry service a lifesaver to city during disasters

TimesLedger Newspapers

The challenges that ground, air and public transportation faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy were unimaginable. Subway service was suspended for days, with some parts of the system experiencing damage so great they could be out of operation for months. Cars ran out of gas and the airports were closed. Even after bridges, tunnels and airports reopened, gas shortages and debilitating traffic ensued.

But one mode of transportation that was able to escape these issues was the city’s ferry service, which is quickly becoming an unsung hero in restoring normalcy by helping residents return to work and access vital services.

Immediately following Sandy, New York Waterway restored some of its ferry service along the Hudson River, the first operator to get its system back online. Soon after, Waterway began running two modified routes along the East River, providing critical service between Brooklyn and Manhattan to passenger loads twice the normal size.

Within 72 hours of the storm, the Staten Island Ferry system was reinstated for commuters, even as many ground options remained closed.

And despite heavy damage to the Jersey Shore and critical boat piers, ferry operator Seastreak was able to find a safe and effective way to restore service from Highlands, N.J., to Manhattan and created a new emergency ferry service from the Rockaways to Manhattan.

Seastreak and New York Water Taxi are also helping the military transport personnel and supplies from U.S. Navy vessels to relief operations in the Rockaways.

The ability of these ferry services to respond in such a time of need is due, in part, to a critical maritime law known as the Jones Act, which requires cargo and passengers traveling between U.S. ports to be carried on American vessels.

During the inevitable chaos of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, the Jones Act plays a quiet role in helping to secure our waterways — and our residents traveling on them — by ensuring that boats are operating in full accordance with U.S. laws and under the oversight of the U.S. government.

It takes a small army of customs staff, immigration officials and other federal security staff to regulate foreign vessels. Without the Jones Act and its homeland security measures, monitoring foreign-controlled and foreign-manned boats in such a time of need would have proven difficult at best.

There is nothing new about the domestic maritime industry working around the clock to respond to emergency situations, across the country and in New York City. During Sept. 11, 2001, American vessels transported nearly half a million individuals away from lower Manhattan — a response that has been called “the greatest sea evacuation in history, larger than the evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II.”

Similarly, as the region recovers from Sandy, the industry continues to stand by, ready to help. Families who lost their homes on Staten Island and emergency response personnel have access to a Military Sea-Lift Command vessel for accommodations like hot meals and showering, and the Massachusetts Maritime College’s federally supported training vessel has arrived on scene to house relief crews helping in the aftermath of Sandy.

Both of these ships are being operated by mariners typically employed on Jones Act vessels.

New York’s transportation system is one of the greatest in the world because of its broad reach throughout the city and the breadth of travel options it provides passengers, motorists and straphangers. The Jones Act helps ensure that our waterways are a crucial and effective component of that network, especially during times of crisis.

James Henry

President

Transportation Institute

Camp Springs, Md.

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