Consider the benefit of water transit

Cost effective mode with immediate impact is often overlooked

EVERY DAY ACROSS OUR COMMONWEALTH, congested roads, structurally deficient bridges, and unreliable rail and bus options frustrate workers, residents, and visitors at all hours of the day and night. It is no secret that Massachusetts’ transportation infrastructure is in dire need of an upgrade. Rush hour traffic is no longer limited to a few hours a day. The MBTA struggles to maintain its existing assets, let alone fund the transit needs of the future to provide reliable and robust options for riders.    

As elected officials, activists, and business leaders continue to discuss ways to make our transportation system more reliable, accessible, and efficient, we would like to highlight the affordable, reliable and readily implementable option of expanding water transit. This cost effective mode with relatively low maintenance costs and potential for more immediate impact cannot be overlooked as a feasible and potentially transformative part of Greater Boston’s transportation network – and as a key to continued economic growth for our state’s economy. As the Pioneer Institute wrote in a 2017 report, “[ferry] service fills an important niche in Massachusetts’ ecosystem of transit options.” 

Expanded water transit service would cost-effectively streamline mobility between coastal communities along the North and South Shores and key areas like the Boston waterfront, inner harbor, South Boston, and Columbia Point. The expanded services would create opportunities for workers and students, and set the stage for continued economic growth. Elected officials in coastal communities, transit advocates, and business leaders all have a vested interest in the development of a robust water transit system, to complement our existing public transit systems. Taking drivers from coastal communities and neighboring areas off of our congested roads will benefit anyone who travels by car. 

Expansive water transit systems are already commonplace in other major coastal cities like Seattle, and there is plenty of evidence pointing to its potential effectiveness and efficiency here in Massachusetts. A ferry trip from Lynn to Boston is the most effective on-time performing  transportation mode taking approximately 30 minutes, about the same amount of time as a ride on the commuter rail to North Station, and significantly less time than driving during rush hour. The same is true for ferries from Salem and Hingham – in each case, travelling by water is as fast or faster than driving or taking the train and more reliable. Ferry Services have an on-time performance greater than 97.5 percent.  At the same time, the 2017 Pioneer Institute report found that “by a number of measures, the ferry is one of the most cost-effective modes at the MBTA. … the fare recovery ration for ferry service is 68 percent, the highest of any MBTA service mode … [and] the MBTA ferry required by far the least capital investment over the [2002 – 2015] timeframe,” compared to other MBTA services, like commuter rail, light rail, and bus service.  

For elected officials in communities like Salem, Lynn, Quincy, and Hingham, reliable water transit promises to seamlessly connect residents with employment, educational, and recreational opportunities in the Greater Boston area – allowing workers, students, and families to put down roots in communities outside the urban core. It also provides the opportunity for residents in and around Boston to easily escape the hustle and bustle of the city and contribute valuable dollars to local economies in coastal communities.  

For transportation advocates, water transit meaningfully expands the public transit options available to Massachusetts residents. Massachusetts needs to leverage its natural resources as a coastal state to address the transportation crisis at hand. Current MBTA ferry service accounts for nearly 1.5 million trips per year – removing cars from the roads and decreasing the burden on other public transit systems. It does so without the relatively high ongoing maintenance costs that are associated with the commuter rail, subway system, and road network.  

For businesses growing along the Boston waterfront – and throughout the urban core – that are struggling to attract and retain highly-qualified workers in one of the most expensive cities in the countrya reliable water transit system will allow them to fill open jobs with the promise of an easy commute from more affordable areas outside the city. It also has the potential to seamlessly connect the waterfront to Logan Airport, Columbia Point, and new developments in Somerville and Everett, allowing companies and workers to operate more efficiently and opening up new opportunities.  Additionally, water transit provides resiliency if other modes are shutdown as we saw in the winter of 2015, when the MBTA’s ferries continued to operate while the commuter rail could not due to extreme winter weather. With a near perfect on-time performance rate, the ferry is the best mode of transit. 

Meet the Author

Jesse Mermell

President, Alliance for Business Leadership
Meet the Author
Research tells us that every dollar spent on public transportation investment generates four in economic return, and meaningfully improves quality of life for workers, residents, and families. As elected officials, advocates, and business leaders push for greater investment in public transportation options in the Commonwealth – with an eye towards improving mobility and supporting continued economic growth – it is essential that expanded water transit be seriously considered as a cost-effective and more near term solution to Greater Boston’s transportation crisis. 

Thomas M. McGee is the Mayor of Lynn, Massachusetts. Jesse Mermell is the President of the Alliance for Business Leadership.