STAMFORD -- After years of consideration, Mayor Michael Pavia has hired a consultant to consider establishing a ferry service to Manhattan at the southwest end of Atlantic Street.
The $50,000 study by Beta Group LLC, a Hartford engineering firm, should be finished by the year's end, City Engineer Mani Poola said.
The move is prompted by the threat of the city having to pay back federal money used on a 2007 feasibility study for service.
The Federal Highway Administration, which granted the city $3.5 million in discretionary earmarks between 2003 and 2006 to study and begin a high-speed ferry service has asked the state Department of Transportation to pay back by $305,727 in federal money spent by Stamford on the study, which selected the former Brewer's Yacht Haven West boatyard as the best site for the service.
The larger balance of unused FHA funds have not been rescinded and the city could still apply to be reimbursed from them if it pursues a ferry project, according to the DOT.
While it remains uncertain whether a ferry service could compete with the railroad in terms of cost and speed, Pavia said he believes the arrival of new businesses and residential development in the South End support the premise Stamford can generate demand for the boat service, thus supporting a reconsideration of the idea.
Preliminary conceptual drawings of the terminal facility call for space to dock two 90-foot boats having a capacity for 150 passengers each.
"I believe this is something that can be done in a way that makes sense from an environmental standpoint, an economic standpoint, and transportation standpoint for the city," Pavia said.
City engineers consider Atlantic Street the best replacement site because it neighbors the former boatyard site, which was identified in the 2007 study by Urbitran Associates, he said.
That land is now owned by Norwalk developer Building Land & Technology; a Westport hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last month announced plans the firm was considering building a new headquarters there.
While farther from the open waters of Long Island Sound than the former boatyard, Pavia said the Atlantic Street is closer to the South End's existing corporations and new residential development.
"We'll make a compelling argument to provide an attractive method of transportation that takes cars off I-95 and reduces congestion on the streets of Stamford," Pavia said.
Under FHA regulations, project sponsors must pay back preliminary engineering funds if a project has not advanced to right of way acquisition or construction phase within 10 years.
The city needs to establish a plan and timetable to pursue the project within the next two weeks to avoid paying back the study money next month, DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said.
"Any inability to establish a plan, or to meet the goals and milestones established will likely result in the project being closed-out as required by (FHA), including the repayment of funds," he said.
Since early in the last decade, Stamford and Bridgeport received a commitment of a combined $15 million in congressional earmarks to build terminals, buy boats and launch services to Manhattan to help reduce automobile use.
Joseph McGee, vice president of public policy for the Fairfield County Business Council, said even with logistical challenges posed by a Stamford-based service, he felt that additional work to determine if a high speed ferry service is possible was money well spent.
McGee said crucial factors will be how long it would take to get ferries out of Stamford Harbor, passenger cost, what speed the ferries could achieve.
"The problem is can you get out of the harbor quick enough to make it competitive with rail?" McGee said. "But the whole issue of maritime transportation is something the state needs to look at so I think it is a smart idea."
Pavia said he believes once a ferry is out in Long Island Sound, it might be able to reach lower Manhattan in half an hour.
A ferry trip would be unlikely to be able to match the cost, speed, and convenience to other mass transit in Manhattan that Metro-North Railroad provides, said Floyd Lapp, executive director for the South Western Regional Planning Agency, which provides transportation planning for the eight municipalities in southwestern Connecticut including Stamford, Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien.
"Unless one wants to spend more money, more time, and have this fun leisurely trip, which usually doesn't coincide with commuting, but discretionary trips like sight-seeing and recreation, I've never seen the feasibility of ferry service from Stamford to either mid-town or lower Manhattan," Lapp said. "View it as a business and how would it really work when you have the juxtaposition of the rail and the body of water."
George Stadel, a naval architect from Stamford who provided the city his evaluation of the Urbitran study, said running a Stamford-to-Manhattan ferry service without large subsidies for passengers was not possible.
The Urbitran study estimated the service would require a $3.7 million annual subsidy to cover fuel and other costs.
Arguments made by Urbitran that renting ferries for recreational trips to bolster revenue and subsidize a commuter service are not likely credible, Stadel said.
The design of a ferry boat with interior seats for commuters would not be highly sought after by most charter groups, Stadel said.
"A boat 90 feet long is never going to travel more than 40 knots and unlike land travel, the higher the speed the use of fuel goes up dramatically," Stadel said.
Pavia said he understood cost, speed, and effectiveness might ultimately rule out moving forward with the ferry project.
"The question is basically is this a viable form of transportation for commuting into and out of Stamford," he said.