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Talking Points

Ferries offer government spending even Libertarians can love

The Pioneer Institute issued a report Tuesday that urges the T to expand ferry services.John Blanding/Globe staff/File 2016

The Pioneer Institute is known around town for its libertarian, less-is-more approach to government. Not this time. The Boston think tank actually wants to expand one small piece of one big government agency, the MBTA.

That’s right. Pioneer is actually calling for more subsidized mass transit — as long as it’s in the water.

Pioneer issued a report Tuesday that urges the T to expand ferry services. The institute titled the document “Is it time to expand water transportation in Greater Boston?” but then repeatedly answered its own question in the affirmative.

The knock on ferries has been high operating expenses. These costs put commuter boats on the chopping block back in 2012, before political pressure resulted in a reprieve.


But operating costs don’t give the whole picture. Bake in the capital costs for infrastructure, Pioneer says, and ferries suddenly become one of the most efficient forms of public transit. Pioneer’s Greg Sullivan tells me that on balance, it’s the least subsidized of all modes. And researcher Matt Blackbourn says: “It really blew us away, just how much of a good deal it is.”

The report arrives at a pivotal time for ferry fans. Boston Harbor Now has launched its own study, this one aimed at analyzing various routes and recommending where the next expansion should take place. Pioneer’s glowing report doesn’t go that far. But it should come in handy next year when Boston Harbor Now revs up its own campaign, an effort that could turn Pioneer into an unlikely ally in the quest for more government funds.

Jon Chesto can be reached at and on Twitter @jonchesto.