E. Boston-Long Wharf experiment shows potential of ferries

Service should become permanent, at least through Sumner Tunnel shutdown

SCHEDULED ROAD, bridge, and transit shutdowns to improve transportation—as in the case of the Sumner Tunnel, which will be closed for four months in the summer of 2023—are a necessary evil of infrastructure maintenance, inevitably resulting in a chorus of thousands of grumbling travelers.

But during recent scheduled Blue Line diversions between Maverick and Bowdoin stations, using creativity and flexibility, the MBTA deployed a ferry to run frequent trips between Lewis Wharf in East Boston and Long Wharf in downtown Boston as a public transit alternative.

Passengers were able to transfer from trains and buses without paying an additional fare, drawing thousands of people who may have never imagined a ferry could get them where they need to go.

Ridership numbers and public sentiment from this experiment are showing us why the service should become permanent—or at least a key strategy for how East Boston and North Shore communities can get through the upcoming 15 months of Sumner Tunnel shutdowns, which began weekend-only shutdowns on June 10 and will then shut down all week long from May 2023 through September 2023.

First, a caveat on what ferries won’t do. They can’t carry as many people as the Blue Line or replace our subway system. Ferries will never become the primary solution for de-congesting Route 1A (as a revamped, high-frequency commuter rail service might—a topic for another day).

But for so many other reasons, the argument is compelling for expanded ferry service, starting with an East Boston-Long Wharf route, to become a core element of our inner-harbor rapid transit network.

An East Boston-Long Wharf ferry can serve as a long-desired pedestrian and bike “bridge” between East Boston and other Boston neighborhoods. It’s much easier to roll a bicycle onto a ferry than down to the Blue Line, and with the direct connections to the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway, the ferry provides a continuation for people who walk and bike. It would create new connectivity and opportunities for equitable economic development and local business growth. With the Blue Line rebounding the fastest of all T lines from the pandemic drop in ridership—and soon facing overcapacity challenges—this ferry “bridge” can relieve pressure on the Blue Line to the benefit of all transit riders.

In a 2019 report, Business Plans for New Water Transportation Service, Boston Harbor Now, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and Massport included the Lewis Mall-Long Wharf service deployed by the MBTA last month as part of a proposed “inner harbor connector” linking ferry terminals in Charlestown, East Boston, and the Seaport via Long Wharf. This analysis showed the connector ranked number one for ridership among 30 options studied, potentially drawing more than 1.5 million passengers per year.

We see a strong case for our Legislature to underwrite a continued East Boston-Long Wharf ferry with state funds. Recently, Rep. Adrian Madaro partnered with North End Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, to secure $1 million in the House budget for returned ferry mitigation during the Sumner Tunnel closure, an earmark recently matched in the Senate budget.

The two-week service during the Blue Line shutdown also gives us some lessons on designing service that best meets the needs of everyone:

  • Price the ferry to ensure it’s affordable for lower-income residents of East Boston and Revere (potentially through an overall low-income MBTA fare that includes ferries).
  • Right-size the ferries so we’re using smaller, more maneuverable vessels with lower emissions—and someday soon make them, and the whole MBTA ferry fleet, hybrid or electric.
  • Commit at the outset to making the service available for as many years as possible so people can count on being able to make a long-term change in how they access Boston.

Expanding water transportation will bring daily joy and long-needed connectivity and opportunity for people and communities throughout the region. We’ve already seen the proof this spring. Now we need to act.

Adrian C. Madaro of East Boston represents the First Suffolk District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Alice Brown is chief of planning and policy at Boston Harbor Now.