It was also the time when a Weehawken-based businessman named Arthur Imperatore, Sr., who purchased nearly two miles of property along the Weehawken and West New York waterfront five years earlier for $7.5 million, glanced across the Hudson River and had a dream.
"I realized originally that it could be and it had to be," Imperatore said in an exclusive interview. "We were right across from the big city. We could reach that pay dirt and bring that pay dirt over here. I wanted to convince the people of Weehawken and West New York that we were sitting on a gold mine. I knew that this area was essentially a part of New York, just as close to the Rockefeller Center as most of New York. In time sense, we were four, maybe five minutes away."
As long as that travel across the river was done via ferry.
So in the fall of 1986, Imperatore put the plan to form the NY Waterway ferry system into place, transporting commuters to and from Manhattan to a handful of sites along the Hudson River waterfront in New Jersey.
At the time, people thought Imperatore's dream of rekindling a ferry system across the Hudson was crazy. Critics called the move a version of financial suicide. A New York Times' headline called the new ferry service "Arthur's Folly."
At one time, ferries were commonplace on the Hudson, but by 1967, the New Jersey-to-New York ferry service had become obsolete, leaving the Staten Island Ferry as the lone on-water commuter service in the area.
But Imperatore was certain that the plan would work, even after commuters were at first somewhat reluctant to take the boat to Manhattan as opposed to taking the train, bus or driving.
"It was simple peasant logic," Imperatore said. "I knew that the people of the area are very smart and if you give them something very good, they would come around. In the beginning, it was slow. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I know that there were a lot of so-called geniuses who doubted me. But I knew the value of time. I knew the difference between comfort and discomfort. I was in the transportation business (as the owner and operator of APA Trucking), so I knew what I was talking about."
So Imperatore purchased a string of ferry boats, a host of buses to take commuters to and from the ferry terminals in Weehawken and Manhattan and hoped that people would eventually have the same feeling that he did that a ferry system was indeed a viable commuting option. He christened that ferry service on January 2, 1987, linking Weehawken, Imperatore's home for several years, to midtown Manhattan.
Last Tuesday, Imperatore's dream, once called a folly, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a host of ceremonies.
Twenty of NY Waterway's entire fleet of 34 boats were on the water at the same time. It marked the first time in over 50 years that so many ferries were assembled together in New York Harbor.
Local members of the clergy, as well as United States Coast Guard chaplains were on hand to bless the vessels that graced the waters of the Hudson that morning.
After the blessing from the clergy and chaplains, the ferries formed a flotilla and paraded past the site of Ground Zero, where NY Waterway ferries brought thousands of commuters to safety during the 9/11 tragedy, as well as circling past the Statue of Liberty.
Over the last 20 years, the NY Waterway ferry system has grown leaps and bounds. More than 150 million passengers have used the NY Waterway system since its inception in 1987. The system currently transports 30,000 passengers a day on 34 boats, servicing 18 different routes.
Restructuring the business
In 2004, Imperatore thought that his dream was coming to an end. His NY Waterway ferry system was bordering on bankruptcy and the financial woes almost forced the ferry system to be shut down. There were plans for a public takeover of the system, with municipalities like Weehawken and Hoboken forming a separate public authority that would oversee the ferry's operations.
"Things did look rather bleak," Imperatore said.
But after selling off some of his ferry lines (in Jersey City and Hoboken) to William Wachtel and the new Billy Bey ferry operations, Imperatore's NY Waterway remained in operation and was able to secure a deal with NJ Transit to build new ferry terminal.
NY Waterway launched a public-private partnership with the state of New Jersey's Department of Transportation and with NJ Transit, which enabled the construction of NY Waterway's new $44 million ferry terminal in Weehawken that opened last May.
Imperatore, who will turn 81 this spring, is as active as ever in running his business. He is not letting is age slow him down and just recently took over the responsibilities of running the operations on a daily basis from his son, Arthur, Jr., who has since left NY Waterway in pursuit of another career.
"I'm running the show now," Imperatore said. "I'm here at 5 in the morning and I stay until whenever. I love doing this. It's the story of my life. My son really never loved it enough to stay. But we have a lot of well trained people working for us, good people. We're not perfect. But we're still here after 20 years."
For love - not money
Imperatore said that the business is still operating in the red.
"We're way under water," Imperatore said, not wanting to speculate or estimate the losses. "We're millions under water, I'll tell you that. I put $20 million of my own money into the business. I borrowed money, sold property, did what I had to do to save the ferry company. But I love it. It's the best run water transportation system in the world, better than Shanghai, better than Boston, better than San Francisco. We put the money into it and we refined it. There are very few operations as difficult and as demanding as this."
"Since I was a little boy growing up in West New York, I always had dreams and visions," Imperatore added. "I had ideas and ambitions. Some of them, I screwed up and some of them were unsuccessful. But more often than not, it worked. We survived. The ferry company survived. I've been the kind of guy who has swum against the tide all my life. I'm not stopping now."
Imperatore seems to be invigorated now that he's in total command of his business once again.
"The pleasure I get, of course, is being with the people," Imperatore said. "I get to tousle the hair of kids and greet the older guys who wear fedora hats like I wear. I love seeing families being together, going to New York to see a show or to go shopping."
Imperatore said that NY Waterway serviced 100,000 passengers in the month of December alone for the holiday season.
"That's in addition to our regular ridership," Imperatore said. "All of those people are coming through Weehawken and going to Manhattan, then coming home. It's so much fun to provide that kind of service."
New services, better service
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner has had a long standing relationship with Imperatore and has been in touch with the NY Waterway service since its inception.
"When I first met Arthur in 1982 and he first bought the property, it was desolate, barren and a burden on the entire region," Turner said. "He bought the land; he cleaned it up and decided he wanted to bring back the ferry system. This day is a testament to him. When you're the mayor of a township and you have someone as influential as Arthur to deal with, there are times where the relationship can be a rocky one. But we've always worked together to decide what is best for Weehawken. Now, there's no reason not to get out of your cars and take mass transit to the waterfront."
According to NY Waterway spokesman Pat Smith, the ceremonies Tuesday kicked off a year-long celebration for the 20th anniversary. Over the next 12 months, NY Waterway plans to implement a series of customer programs and technological upgrades to further enhance services. These include expanded service linking Edgewater and Manhattan;
website improvements with timely customer service advisories; the use of GPS system to track the buses and relay the information to customers; improved surface transportation at Port Imperial; improved parking facilities; enhanced pedestrian access from the Light Rail Station to Port Imperial with a newly-constructed overpass; monthly drawings with prizes such as free monthly passes, sightseeing cruises, dinners, tickets to local attractions; and entertainment and product giveaways in the terminals.
"We are now looking towards our next 20 years of service," Imperatore said. "With the help of our partners in government, NY Waterway will continue to expand on its 20-year record of providing safe, reliable, environmentally-friendly commuter ferry transportation, using our great waterways as a means to unite people in the region.
Added Imperatore, "We're building for the future. Our best customers are the kids, because they're the ones who will keep coming back. Who wants to take a bus or drive a car through the tunnel, when you can get on the water? There's a different feeling on the water. It's the feeling of empowerment."
Just like the sense of empowerment Arthur Imperatore, Sr. has when he sees his once-called folly sail mightily into the Manhattan skyline at sunset.