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EDWARD L. GLAESER

A bridge to East Boston — via ferry

Boston grew up around its harbor, but the waterways that were once our lifelines to the outside world are often barriers to mobility. No Boston community today is more isolated because of the water than East Boston. Yet there is a chance to use an ancient technology — the ferry — to connect that neighborhood with the growing Innovation District in South Boston.

We can’t tell whether a ferry will generate enough ridership to justify its costs. But when the ferry idea is subjected to the kind of scrutiny that infrastructure proposals deserve, it looks like an experiment worth trying — especially since the federal government will cover most of the purchase price of the boats.

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Boston’s water views are a great asset that should generate growth in the waterfront areas of both East and South Boston. The Innovation District is a good bet partially because entrepreneurs also like nice views. The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s master plan for East Boston has long envisioned luxury development along the waterfront.

East Boston and the South Boston waterfront both have great growth potential. Yet while they are near each other — about a mile — they currently feel far apart. Imagine if some bright software designer could wake up in a new development in East Boston and speed to work in the Innovation District. That can’t happen now, unless she drives. It takes three separate subways to get from Maverick to South Station, and getting to Logan’s Silver Line is no easy trek from much of Eastie.

We built bridges to cross waterways in the 19th century and tunnels in the 20th century, but these are incredibly expensive. Why not reconsider the 18th century solution of traveling on the water? Last summer, Mayor Thomas Menino announced that the Federal Highway Administration gave the Boston Redevelopment Authority $1.3 million to help buy two ferries.

We should be grateful for this transportation department largesse. But given the uncertainty about transportation demand, we also need to be careful. Federal grants to buy rolling (or ferrying) stock outright make far less sense than grants for multi-year leases. As a nation, we need to experiment with new transportation methods, and that calls for renting, not buying.

As a city, we can still view the East Boston ferry as an experiment if we buy the boats, because we should be able to do something else with the boats if demand doesn’t materialize.

We’ve tried expensive tunnels. Why not try cheap boats?

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To evaluate that demand, the redevelopment authority turned to my colleague Linda Bilmes, who, supported by the Rappaport Institute, sends her advanced public policy students out to help local governments analyze projects.

Her student team estimates that annual operating costs for running the ferries five days a week would come to about $1.4 million per year, including fuel, labor, and maintenance. There is some chance of earning extra by toting weekend tourists to the Harbor Islands, but the main revenue will either have to come from riders or public subsidies.

They reasonably assume that the ferry will receive an average of $2 per rider each way; at that rate, the ferry would need to attract about 1,350 round-trip riders a day to break even. Will the ferry actually get anywhere near that? East Boston today is unlikely to support more than a few hundred riders. But new development could generate far more demand.

The student team estimates that the ferries will start with about 575 daily round-trip riders — or over 900, if land for commuter parking is available on the Eastie side. At 575 daily round trips, the subsidy would be $800,000 or so per year. That subsidy goes down significantly if ridership exceeds that level. The real upside lies in future growth; optimistic projections suggest that the ferry could cover its costs in a decade.

This seems to be a gamble worth taking.

The problem with a subway stop or a highway is that these are expensive and fixed. We’re stuck with them whether or not the riders arrive. But legitimate worries about making big mistakes don’t mean our transportation system should be frozen.

With ferries, the cost is low, and boats can be moved elsewhere if need be. Yet if it works, the service will spur future development along two waterfronts. We’ve tried expensive tunnels. Why not try cheap boats?

Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.
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