Some ferry service must be maintained

We need a foundation to grow once COVID passes

THE MOST WELL-ESTABLISHED ferry services in Boston Harbor are on the chopping block — deemed “non-essential” by the MBTA and proposed for elimination as a cost saving measure to the MBTA’s Fiscal Management Control Board (FMCB). Due to modest ridership that has yet to bounce back from the 14-week ferry shutdown, the services from Hull and Hingham that have operated since the 1970s and the Charlestown service that restarted in the 1980s could be closed again with no plans to reopen.

While ferries may seem an easy target in a time of budget challenges, these cuts will set ferry service back decades from a land use perspective and make the T’s most reliable transit service feel transient. We must rally to preserve the service.

In early March, reductions in ferry service were outside the realm of imagination. Ferries in Boston Harbor were having a resurgence. Not only was ridership continuing to increase on the MBTA’s three ferry routes, other water transportation services were popping up around the harbor. Over the past three years, the MBTA began operating two new custom-built vessels from Long Wharf, while the city of Salem won a federal grant to procure a second vessel. A partnership between the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and Seaport property owners launched new service from Lovejoy Wharf to Fan Pier, the town of Winthrop was providing ferry service to Boston and Quincy, and the Encore Casino began a water shuttle service between their Everett location, downtown Boston, and the Seaport.

Finally, enough people were living and working along the waterfront to once again have real demand for a new inner harbor connector as demonstrated by the 2019 business plan released by Boston Harbor Now in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Port Authority. In February of 2020, permits were filed to construct new ferry infrastructure at Lewis Mall in East Boston in preparation for anticipated services.

Each potential ferry service elimination tells a different story of the role that transit plays in our region. In Hull, residents of this mixed income community take the ferry to medical appointments, to jobs from teaching to fish processing, and for other business. The community isn’t large enough to break ridership records on an ordinary day, but that makes it no less essential to its residents who can’t drive or afford alternatives. This community is also at risk of losing bus service and having to depend on the infrequent Greenbush train line that will no longer have weekend service.

In Hingham, the development in the Shipyard at Hewitt’s Cove has been driven by the ferry. The transit-oriented development there includes housing as well as a commercial center that rely on the frequent ferry service that connects them with Boston. This relatively dense development offers a model for land use around other transit nodes that many communities can learn from and has allowed people to rely less on driving into Boston — they no longer contribute to congestion or have to search for a place to park.

Charlestown’s ferry service between the Navy Yard and Long Wharf has long served the tourists who walk the Freedom Trail to the USS Constitution, where visitation is down by 87 percent. However, the residents continue to depend on the ferry, and their reliance has persisted even in the pandemic. In fact, more people are opting for the boat as they avoid the harrowing experience of the temporary North Washington Street Bridge. Employees at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Mass General, and the other medical centers in the neighborhood are also using it with increasing frequency.

People have unbridled enthusiasm for ferries, even if they only ride a ferry a handful of times each year. In Baltimore and Seattle and Sydney, tourists love ferries and locals depend on them. They’ve made a comeback on the East River in New York and on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. They have demonstrated their resilience in emergencies and are more reliably on time than most other modes of transit. They are recognized for their ability to provide additional transportation capacity when roads and trains are congested or crowded. And when operating and capital costs are combined, they require a lower subsidy per passenger than any MBTA service except buses.

However, their economic systems are fragile. The operation of ferries requires highly specialized skills by private operators who provide contracted services, and often much of the vessel fleet, to large agencies. They seem almost like they’re too fun to be essential, but they are critical to some proportion of their riders and provide a joyous ride to everyone else, the kind of transit trip that is essential to our struggling urban core and tourism economy.

Meet the Author
In order for ferry service to return successfully in the wake of the pandemic, it cannot be fully eliminated. Preserving at least the F2 route connecting Hull, Hingham, Long Wharf, and Logan as well as the Charlestown route, possibly with a modified schedule, will provide a foundation for re-growing and eventually expanding the ferry options so essential for the future of our region and our harbor.

Alice Brown is chief of planning and policy at Boston Harbor Now.