Business

Would people use a Boston Harbor ferry service?

Captain Jackie Saba piloted Alix, a Boston Harbor Cruises water taxi, out of Long Wharf near the Financial District.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff
Captain Jackie Saba piloted Alix, a Boston Harbor Cruises water taxi, out of Long Wharf near the Financial District.

There’s new life in the long-stalled effort to provide regular ferry service to the booming neighborhoods and business districts that front Boston’s inner harbor.

Two groups, one led by real estate developers in East Boston, another by public officials from several agencies, are launching studies to determine whether ferries can shuttle passengers along and across the harbor and not be much more expensive or less convenient than subways or buses.

“When people look to come to a destination, one of the top things they look at is a transportation network,” said James Folk, director of transportation for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. “Right now, that’s lacking a little bit, and we’re hoping this piece will help.”

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His agency is leading a three-month study of ferry service mostly focused on a route between Lovejoy Wharf near North Station and the blossoming Seaport District. Later this fall a group of developers led by Lendlease will examine the feasibility of a “rush hour” ferry service between East Boston and the Seaport.

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Lendlease Group is about to begin construction on Clippership Wharf, a four-building complex of 478 apartments and condominiums on the East Boston waterfront near Maverick Square. The study is being done under a requirement that developers of waterfront properties provide or preserve access to the waterfront.

Nick Iselin, the company’s general manager, hopes to see a test run of the service in place in 2018. While East Boston has access to downtown via the Blue Line, Iselin said a ferry would be more convenient to other fast-growing parts of downtown that aren’t easily served by rapid transit.

“East Boston is undergoing a bit of a residential renaissance on the waterfront,” Iselin said. “Having a one-stop opportunity to connect to the Seaport will be appealing to the people who haven’t had that option.”

The MBTA does operate a limited ferry service in the inner harbor, with boats running between Long Wharf, Charlestown, and Logan Airport. And Boston Harbor Cruises runs an on-demand water taxi that picks up passengers at points around the harbor. But both cost much more than a typical subway or bus fare — a one-way ride on the water taxi, for example, is $12.

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“The water-taxi service that connects almost every part of Boston Harbor is great,” Iselin said, “but the price point for that doesn’t really support a commuting effort.”

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Paula and Kevin McMenamy took in the sights of the Boston waterfront aboard a water taxi.

The last effort to provide regular ferries inside the harbor didn’t get far. In 2012, Boston under then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino won a $1.28-million federal grant to buy two ferry boats. At the time many ambitious real estate projects in East Boston were still stalled.

Richard McGuinness, the deputy director for waterfront planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said the ferry grant was an “optimistic” attempt to “motivate development in East Boston by adding transportation.”

“We were going to buy two boats and run a two-boat public transportation service for the whole harbor,” McGuinness said. “It just didn’t make sense.”

For one, the boats that the city priced cost much more than the grants provided, McGuinness said. Moreover, as city officials got deeper into the planning, they realized that running ferries was a bigger undertaking than they had thought. Boston had also concluded that they could not persuade the MBTA, already struggling to run its existing network, to take on additional service, McGuinness said.

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The state Department of Transportation, which oversees the MBTA, supports efforts to “explore the potential for new ferry service within the Boston Harbor and will continue to provide input and assistance throughout the process,” said Ryan Grannan-Doll, a spokesman for the department, in a statement.

‘The water-taxi service that connects almost every part of Boston Harbor is great, but the price point for that doesn’t really support a commuting effort.’

Nick Iselin, Lendlease Group 

The inaction, though, has frustrated other city officials.

“From East Boston you can see the Seaport, but you can’t get there,” said City Councilor Sal LaMattina, whose district includes parts of East Boston. He has called for a City Council hearing on ferry service.

Ferry service isn’t cheap. For example, Boston Harbor Cruises estimates that a ferry running every 15 minutes between Lovejoy Wharf and the Seaport would require three 149-passenger vessels that cost about $4 million each.

To succeed where past efforts have failed, a ferry service would really have to “be competitive with the subway or driving and parking,” said Alison Nolan, principal at Boston Harbor Cruises.

But Folk of the MCCA noted that a fleet of private bus shuttles that serves the Seaport District costs millions — money that could be instead used to underwrite ferries.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Kristy and Ted Murday of Texas boarded a Boston Harbor Cruises water taxi at Long Wharf. A one-way fare is $12.

Folk’s group, which includes several public agencies, landlords, residents, and civic groups, plans to study the logistics of bringing ferry service between Lovejoy Wharf and the Seaport: How big should the boats be, how often should they run, and at what cost? The MCCA hopes to use fees from waterfront development and federal money to help underwrite the study.

He said the MCCA could supervise the ferry system, which would likely be bid out to private operators, such as Boston Harbor Cruises.

One test of rider interest in ferries was launched this week in East Boston. Roseland Property is underwriting discounted water taxi service for residents of its Portside at East Pier development at $5, instead of the regular $12 fare, said Jamie Fay, whose consulting firm Fort Point Associates represents Roseland.

The discount is intended to “build some ridership” on the water service, said Fay, who added Roseland is considering expanding the subsidy to other East Boston residents.

“It’s a changing waterfront over there, and so it doesn’t make sense now to spend millions of dollars building boats and installing docks without the ridership there yet,” Fay said.

Michael Bodley can be reached at michael.bodley@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @michael_bodley.