Arthur E. Imperatore Sr., a bluff entrepreneur who parlayed a trucking fortune into a dubious ferryboat operation that grew to be a critical link in New York City’s transit network, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 95.
His death, at Mount Sinai Hospital, was confirmed by his stepson, Armand Pohan, who said Mr. Imperatore had suffered from progressive kidney failure.
Mr. Imperatore steered the ferry service, New York Waterway, through legal and financial straits and disputes with government officials. But he also reveled in moments of glory, when his boats rode to the rescue on Sept. 11, 2001, and eight years later, when a commercial jet splashed down in the Hudson River.
Mr. Imperatore, whose formal education ended at high school, did not set out to be a ferry tycoon. He started the service as a “loss leader” to promote the two miles of industrial waterfront property he had acquired on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, Mr. Pohan said.
The land, most of which lay in the town of Weehawken, had belonged to the Penn Central railroad. Mr. Imperatore bought it for $7.75 million in 1981 with the dream of turning it into a mini-city in “the Greco-Roman tradition” called Port Imperial.
But Mr. Imperatore knew far less about the real estate business than he understood about transportation. Once he let established developers do the building, a less grandiose residential community took shape.
Mr. Imperatore had gotten rich in the freight-hauling business. A company he started in 1947 with four of his seven brothers, the APA Transport Corporation, had become one of the most profitable trucking companies in the country.
Restless and impatient, he considered all sorts of ventures and embarked on several of them. His notion of an amusement park along the riverfront did not fly. But his idea of relocating a professional hockey team to New Jersey did — only without him.
Mr. Imperatore bought the Colorado Rockies of the National Hockey League in the late 1970s, with the intention of moving the team to an arena being constructed in the New Jersey Meadowlands. In 1982, the Rockies were renamed the New Jersey Devils and began playing at the new Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands. But Mr. Imperatore had sold the team by then.
“My dad never met a business he didn’t like,” Mr. Pohan said. “Like a prospector, he drilled many dry wells, and once in a while he hit a gusher.”
Few people thought Mr. Imperatore would be a winner in the ferry business. Some derided the venture as “Arthur’s folly.”
But he plowed ahead, docking a hulking old ferry at the river’s edge as a makeshift terminal. There, passengers would board smaller boats for the quick crossing to a pier he had bought in Midtown Manhattan.
He delegated much of the development to real estate companies, said Richard Turner, the longtime mayor of Weehawken. Mr. Turner estimated that the value of the property Mr. Imperatore once owned, along with all of the condominiums, townhouses and shops packed onto it, easily exceeded $1 billion.
New York Waterway gradually added routes to Lower Manhattan from various docks along the New Jersey coast. Before the coronavirus pandemic sharply curtailed commuting, its fleet was carrying more than 30,000 passengers a day.
Two years ago, New York Waterway stirred up public opposition in neighboring Hoboken to its plan to move its boat-maintenance facility about a mile downriver. Hoboken blocked that proposal, despite the company’s heavy lobbying of Gov. Philip D. Murphy and threats that the service could not survive without making the move.
“He was a very tough, tenacious negotiator,” Mr. Turner said. “He wasn’t a poker player. If you crossed him, you knew it.”
Some of the company’s finest hours came in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, which destroyed the PATH train station beneath the complex. From that morning until well past dark, the ferries carried thousands of traumatized people away from the ruins.
The company received emergency contracts to keep providing a substitute for the inoperative trains. But federal prosecutors determined that New York Waterway had inflated its costs and overcharged for that additional service. In 2006, the company agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle the charges.
When a US Airways jet landed in the Hudson in January 2009 with 155 people aboard, New York Waterway ferries detoured to rescue the passengers who had evacuated the sinking plane.
Arthur Edward Imperatore was born on July 8, 1925, in West New York, N.J. He was the ninth of 10 children of Eugene Imperatore, a grocer, and his wife, Teresa. He graduated from Memorial High School in West New York and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
In addition to Mr. Pohan, his survivors include his wife, Dr. Mei-Ling Yee-Imperatore; a son, Arthur Jr.; a daughter, India Imperatore; and eight grandchildren.
Mr. Imperatore temporarily lost control of about half of New York Waterway’s service in 2005 when the company flirted with bankruptcy. He struck a deal with William Wachtel, a Manhattan lawyer with no experience in the ferry business.
Mr. Wachtel vividly recalled the day Mr. Imperatore picked him up in “a really old Lincoln Town Car” and stopped at Zabar’s for bagels and lox on the way to a five-hour negotiation at Mr. Imperatore’s home. He said Mr. Imperatore ingratiated himself by speaking a little Yiddish.
In the years before he sold back his part of the business, Mr. Wachtel said, he came to consider Mr. Imperatore a close friend and mentor. “Many people felt he was a tormentor,” Mr. Wachtel said, “but in reality his need for perfection made it impossible for him to settle for anything less.”