The waterways leading to the 34-island federal Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area are similar to the roadways leading through state and national parks. But there is one critical difference. Unless you own your own boat, the only way to the islands is via private ferry at the rate of $15 for adults, $11 for seniors, and $9 for children ages 3-11. The $60 cost for a 20-minute ferry ride for a couple and two teens is too steep for many families, especially when combined with the high parking costs near the departure point at downtown Long Wharf. And the usual efforts by the National Park Service to ease access at park entrances — deeply discounted annual passes, senior passes, free admission for guests of pass holders — don’t apply to the ferry service.
Visitors who make the trip are almost unanimous in their praise of the scenic walking trails on Spectacle Island and the historic sites on Georges Island. More adventuresome visitors can also catch water shuttles to wilder islands in the outer harbor. But to attract visitors, Harbor Islands park operators must bring down ferry prices — by attracting more patrons to spread out the cost of the service, cutting a more favorable deal with a private ferry operator, or subsidizing fares using privately raised money.
A nonprofit organization, the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, serves as the business agent for park operations. It, in turn, contracts out ferry service to a private operator, Boston’s Best Cruises, which isn’t under any obligation to honor National Park Service discounts. Last year, only about 130,000 visitors arrived by ferry. That’s about half the number that the islands can accommodate comfortably.
The strategic plan for the Harbor Islands directly addresses ferry affordability. “By 2016,’’ it reads, “the Boston Harbor Islands adult round trip fare will be no more than the national average adult movie ticket price.” Today, that price is around $8, although a $10 ferry fare for adults (less for children) would be a reasonable price given Boston’s overall high costs of living.
The recent arrival of a new director at the Boston Harbor Islands Alliance, former state environmental official Philip Griffiths, presents an opportunity to address the group’s history of lackluster fund-raising. Stronger performance in this area would help to subsidize the cost of ferry service. Also, the 10-year ferry contract expires at the end of the 2014 season. Griffiths should focus first and foremost on affordability when negotiating a new contract. One way to boost ridership, thereby making it easier to lower prices, would be to push bidders to open new embarkation points — in, say, Lynn and Quincy — where parking is easier.
Griffiths stressed that the Alliance provides about 16,000 free ferry rides each year, mainly through programs for low-income children and a couple of free ridership days for the general public. But the goal should be making access to Harbor Islands — a national recreation area — more affordable to everyone, during every day of the boating season.