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If the MBTA can’t fund ferries, other agencies should step in

IF THE MBTA withdraws funding for its ferry service — as the agency proposed Jan. 3 as a cost-saving measure — the state should look for other ways to keep the boats that carry 1.3 million commuters a year afloat. If anything, ferry service connecting shoreline communities to the wharves on the Boston waterfront has room to expand, taking cars off the road and easing the strain on buses and trains.

The T keeps commuter ferry operations at arm’s length, hiring a private contractor instead of sailing the fleet itself. The boats currently serve docks in Hull, Hingham, and Quincy, requiring an annual subsidy of about $3.7 million. Other communities, including Lynn and Chelsea, have also expressed interest in adding ferry service over the years.

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Going forward, one option would be for the T to continue offering the service, but remove the subsidy and charge high enough fares to cover the full cost. State Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey estimated that such a move would result in fares of about $15 for a round trip, as opposed to as little as $3.40 for a round trip now. Some commuters would be priced out, but at least it would preserve the option of commuting by boat.

A better proposal, which is under consideration by a MassDOT committee, would transfer responsibility for subsidizing the service to Massport, the state agency that runs Logan Airport and the port of Boston. The ferries may be a better fit there anyway, since water transport is already part of Massport’s mission. Massport should have the needed expertise to oversee a ferry operation, and its finances are in better shape.

And there would be some fairness if Massport were to take the ferry’s expense off the T’s hands. Many of the debts that are driving the T’s financial woes stem from Big Dig projects - of which Logan Airport has been a major beneficiary.

The harbor is an underutilized transit artery, and the possible cuts come just as the city has been exploring ways to expand water transit connections to East Boston. The T faces enormous financial constraints, with a projected $161 million deficit next year. The agency may not be able to afford to run the boats any longer, but ending ferry service completely would be a step backwards.

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