The future of public transportation in New York City is taking shape on the bayous of Louisiana and Alabama.
Shipyard workers in the two states are scrambling to finish the city's new ferry fleet in time for a launch this summer, just a little more than a year after it was first proposed.
The city is making a $335 million bet that the service will attract millions of passengers traveling between Manhattan and waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx that are now a distant walk from overcrowded subways.
Transportation infrastructure in the city has a tendency to take many years, if not decades, to get built, but in this case workers are under pressure to get the new ferries and docks built in a New York minute.
Horizon Shipbuilding, in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, has 100 employees - including 80 hired last summer - working to fill its order of 10 ferries for the 20-boat fleet. The rest are being built at the Metal Shark shipyard in Franklin, Louisiana, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Baton Rouge.
Inside Metal Shark's huge boat-building shed last week, several of the $4 million catamaran vessels were in various stages of completion. Sparks and smoke flew around workers' protected heads as they welded one lightweight aluminum ferry frame. Other workers stood between the catamarans' two pontoons, sanding the rough metal. Electricians were busy wiring the navigation system. Cranes carried pieces of tubing to the ferry-to-be.
"A project like this is unique," said Junior Volpe, director of special projects for Hornblower Inc., the San Francisco-based company that will operate the ferry system in partnership with New York City.
More than a year ago, when they were still negotiating the construction of the ferries in such a short time period, "a lot of people were, like, 'Wow, I don't think this is ever going to happen.' And to prove that things are possible, here we are. We're sitting on the first ferry that's going to be delivered here at Metal Shark - and it's amazing," Volpe said.
City transportation officials say the new ferry fleet will speed up travel time in this city of islands by as much as two-thirds and come at a competitive price - $2.75 - the same as a subway fare. That compares to the limited ferry service that currently takes commuters and tourists across the Hudson and East Rivers at $4 to $6 per ride. New York's fifth borough, Staten Island, is served by its famed free ferry service that offers about 23 million rides a year.