4 municipalities pitching T on ferry service

Lynn mayor says MBTA's rules for pilots don’t make it easy

FERRIES, OFTEN TREATED like the forgotten middle child of the MBTA, are about to get a chance to shine.

After years of discussion and several years of study, the T is taking applications for ferry service pilot projects and four communities – Quincy, Hull, Winthrop, and Lynn – are tossing their hats in the ring.

Each of the communities submitted initial draft applications and those proposals are now being tweaked with the help of MBTA staff. The final applications are expected to be filed with the Fiscal and Management Control Board in early November, with approved pilots scheduled to begin service next July and run for 11 months. After that, the T will decide whether to make the pilot service permanent.

The big challenge for expanding ferry service is the lack of available vessels and a shortage of docking space and parking facilities. The T doesn’t have any spare boats and private operators can be costly to hire. MBTA rules for pilot projects require the proposed service to have a T operating subsidy comparable to the current average per-trip subsidy on the most similar existing service.

Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee told the control board this week that that requirement makes it almost impossible for a ferry pilot to win approval. He noted the T’s current Hingham ferry has taken decades to reach the passenger levels it has now, and it’s not fair to expect a new service to reach that level of acceptance in just 11 months.

Lynn’s pilot proposal features year-round service from an existing dock with passengers using MBTA commuter passes. With state financial support, Lynn offered seasonal ferry service to Boston from 2014 to 2017. The financial support was withdrawn by the Baker administration in 2018 due to low ridership.

Hull may have the easiest pilot proposal to implement, in part because the community only wants to expand service already provided by the T. The community is served by a ferry that runs between Pemberton Point and Boston and Logan International Airport. Under the pilot, more trips would be added in both directions.

Backers say the extra runs are needed. The current ferry carries about 1,080 passengers a day, who pay $9.75 one way. Philip Lemnios, the town manager in Hull, said the ferry is so popular that “some commuters are being left at the dock to wait for the next scheduled ferry.”

Winthrop officials say their proposal is also fairly simple. It would allow riders on the community’s current seasonal ferry to use MBTA Charlie Cards. “There have been a number of requests from commuters to incorporate the Charlie Card system into ours to help them with their commuting,” said Tanji Cifuni, the project manager for the town.

In Quincy, officials are advocating for something bigger. They want the MBTA or a contracted vendor to provide frequent, direct ferry service connecting Quincy’s Squantum Point Park with downtown Boston at Long Wharf North and Logan International Airport. Other than a Quincy pickup by the Winthrop ferry three to four times a day, the city does not currently have any consistent ferry service.

Squantum Point Pier in Quincy. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Armed with a business plan that touts 1,585 daily riders, city officials say they have secured funding for and built an access road to their pier and improved the 900-spot parking lot where drivers can park for only $5 a day.

Quincy officials say their ferry proposal would provide a “relief valve” for the already overburdened Red Line. The officials estimate more than 156,000 annual person trips could be diverted from cars.

Carolyn Krantz is interested. She commutes to Boston from Quincy, and was using the Quincy stop on the Winthrop ferry until service ended for two months due to engine problems this summer. In frustration, she urged her state legislators to push hard for more consistent ferry service.

“I’ve been taking the Red Line. There’s no other way to get in, and it’s been unreliable, too,” Krantz said. “Quincy needs a consistent and reliable ferry service year round to get us to Boston to make a living.”

With funding from state transportation agencies, the advocacy group Boston Harbor Now began a two-year, ferry-planning process in 2017 by examining 30 potential dock sites in areas around Boston. The organization released two business plans in April for potential ferry routes. One was for Quincy, which Boston Harbor Now officials argue has commuters ripe for the picking. The second, called the Inner Harbor Connector, would expand existing ferry service between Charlestown and Boston, adding additional stops in East Boston and the Seaport.

Alice Brown, director of planning at Boston Harbor Now, says Quincy is using some of the scheduling, route, and fare framework outlined in her organization’s business plan. Squantum Point Park has the “right combination of local development, existing infrastructure, and strong initial results in ridership modeling,” the group said in its business plan.

The pier at Squantum Point has existed since the 1980s, when it was built to accommodate workers and equipment needing transit to Deer Island.

For local Quincy officials, residents, and elected leaders like state Sen. John Keenan, the need for reliable, consistent water transit to Boston is apparent. “The most important thing is that the schedule has to be matched to commuters’ needs, and has to be affordable and reliable,” said Keenan.

Quincy’s plan is to utilize two vessels, which could each ferry up to 120 passengers weekdays and weekends from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. During peak travel hours, ferries would depart every 40 minutes from the Boston and Quincy terminals. During off-peak hours and on weekends, departures would be every 60 minutes. Officials estimate it would take 15 to 20 minutes to get Quincy to Logan Airport, and 27 to 30 minutes to Long Wharf North.

Quincy officials are proposing a fare of $6.50 each way, a figure that was lifted from the Boston Harbor Now business plan.

The Squantum Point Park ferry terminal. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

As of the summer of 2018, there were several public ferries providing commuter and recreational service in Boston Harbor – seasonal ferry service from Salem to Boston, Winthrop’s town-run and owned seasonal ferry to the Seaport District with a stop in Quincy, two privately run ferries operating between Boston and Provincetown, and the MBTA’s three, year-round commuter boats. Those launch from Hull, Hingham, and Charlestown.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The ferry from Hingham began as a private operation in 1975 before becoming part of the MBTA system in 1984. Ridership has grown over the years, with combined passenger levels on the Hingham and Hull ferries hitting 1,164,896 in 2016.

According to the MBTA, its ferry service has the highest rate of on-time performance of any form of transit at nearly 98 percent. Ferries also have the highest level of customer satisfaction of all transportation modes.