Local leaders have long talked about reviving commuter boats on the East Boston side of the harbor. Now that talk finally seems to be turning into action.
The Massachusetts Port Authority on Wednesday filed a notice of intent with the Boston Conservation Commission to build a new ferry dock at Lewis Mall, a small waterfront park near the busy Maverick station on the Blue Line. The application goes into great detail about the site layout, but plenty of questions remain about the actual service that would be offered there.
Because of its maritime expertise, Massport is coordinating the permitting process for the state Department of Transportation. The city owns the site, but MassDOT officials say state funds will pay for the dock.
What’s the price tag? That’s one of the many still open questions. A MassDOT spokeswoman would say only that the costs have yet to be finalized.
Another important question: Where will the boats go? If state officials know the answer to that one, they’re not saying — at least not right now.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards said she has heard the state wants to run boats to the Long Wharf area. That route might seem duplicative: It essentially parallels the Blue Line. However, Edwards said MassDOT wants an alternative for maintenance-related closures that are coming to the Blue Line and Sumner tunnels. Besides, the Blue Line has become far more crowded these days compared to the 1990s, when a similar ferry route was tried.
Another potential destination: the Seaport. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority is working to add a third ferry to its two-boat fleet that whisks commuters between Lovejoy Wharf near North Station and Fan Pier in the Seaport. Among the ideas floated for that third ferry: a stop at Lewis Mall. In addition to picking up East Boston residents, it would offer another “last mile” solution for North Shore commuters who prefer to take the Blue Line into the city instead of the commuter rail.
The dock project will be a hot topic next Tuesday night. That’s when the Boston Planning & Development Agency will host an open house to discuss transportation issues in the neighborhood. City officials say they hope to have a temporary dock installed this summer, with a permanent one built there in 2021.
A ferry dock at Lewis Mall also represents the missing puzzle piece for an Inner Harbor “connector” service proposed in a water transportation report last year by the nonprofit Boston Harbor Now. The report made the business case for boats that leave four docks along the harbor every 15 minutes during peak times, and every 20 minutes at off-peak times. (The other three are already in use, in the Charlestown Navy Yard, at Lovejoy Wharf, and at Fan Pier.)
Boston Harbor Now’s business plans estimated that a new dock for commuter ferries at Lewis Mall — only a water taxi dock exists there today — could cost more than $3.2 million. The state could do it for less: Boston Harbor Now planning director Alice Brown said the cost will depend on whether an existing float is put to use, and which agency takes the lead on designing it.
Edwards argues that this inner-harbor connector would be the best use of the new dock — a way for residents of her neighborhood to get to the Seaport, Charlestown, and downtown by boat.
Ferries once served as a primary connection between the East Boston peninsula and the rest of the city for decades, but that service ended in the 1950s as Blue Line service and the Sumner Tunnel absorbed the demand. That 1990s revival didn’t last long. The MBTA boat from Hingham and Hull does stop near Logan Airport several times a day before heading downtown. But that ferry is impractical for Eastie commuters: The Logan dock is not near a residential neighborhood, the service is relatively infrequent, and the cost is $9.75 a trip.
Edwards wants ferries that are affordable for most of her constituents — that is, less than the cost of the Logan boat, or even the $5 one-way fare for the boat that the convention center authority runs. She essentially wants to see service akin to the T’s Charlestown ferry to Long Wharf.
Edwards doesn’t seem fazed that the plans aren’t more fully realized yet. You can’t talk about a ferry, she said, without having a dock first. The clock is ticking: The Blue Line interruptions on weekends will start in May, and the Sumner Tunnel could close for work as soon as next year.
Boston’s congestion issues are already legendary, even without tunnel closures snarling things. Edwards said it’s about time that the natural resource that surrounds her neighborhood be put to good use. Solving the city’s transportation crisis, she said, will require all hands on deck.