Adam Interviews Bill Johnson

Former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson laments the Fast Ferry's failure

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC-TV) - In November of 1993 the man everyone knew as the Urban League's longtime executive director, a man with no political experience, became Rochester's first African-American mayor.

What followed was an 11-year stretch of what Johnson calls best practices.

“Find a city that's doing something that you think could work and go get a look at it, examine it, come back, figure out the conditions that we need to introduce it here. That's the kind of stuff I loved, I hated the politics,” Johnson said.

It could be argued that much of what was touted during this year's State of the City address started under Johnson's watch.

That said, talk of Johnson's tenure rarely ends without the mention of one thing: the fast ferry.

“I think it's a great misfortune we didn't continue that and what most people don't remember was that when we got into that venture, we did with the full support of the community,” Johnson remembers. “I've got newspaper clippings talking about 80% of the people supportive of the Fast Ferry.”

To Johnson, many things sank the ferry with his successor, Bob Duffy, shutting it down after year one of a three-year plan being one.

A second, according to Johnson, the failure to secure two ferries.

Only one docked in Rochester meant no day trips from Toronto.   

“Because if you got on it over there at noon, you had to be on the same boat going back unless you wanted to stay overnight so the day trip thing kind of broke down because we didn't have the 2 ships,” Johnson said.

Johnson acknowledges, though, the ferry was also fighting the fact that on a good day, you could drive to Toronto in the same amount of time.

Listening to Johnson the ferry sounds like that big fish that got away.

It was designed to be a triumph of a big idea over little politics.     

“I think one of the worst jobs is being a politician, I have disdain, and people say, ‘Well, you were one,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, but I'm a recovering one,’” Johnson said.

Johson’s political career started and peaked in City Hall’s corner office.
He lost to Maggie Brooks in his bid to become the Monroe County Executive in 2003 and failed to retake the mayoral seat in a 2011 run.

Asked what he thought of the Black Lives Matter movement, Johnson, who was born and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, said there is a lack of accountability for some officers in some situations, but added, “What I’ve said is we have to bring both sides together and to get a blanket admission on both sides that, one, all police are not killers because when you consider all the interactions they have just in Rochester these are rare occasions, but then you need to have an admission on the side of police that some of these actions are indefensible and they do not deserve the protection of the authorities either the city or the police union.”         

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