Casino developer Steve Wynn imagines his own fleet of custom-built catamarans ferrying tourists and conventioneers from downtown Boston and the Seaport to a riverfront gambling palace in Everett, an extensive new service to reduce car traffic to the proposed resort.
Wynn’s company likes the idea so much, it now estimates that 6 percent of patrons would use the water transit service, double its original forecast — a projection challenged by a rival casino applicant.
The increase in projected boat ridership is beneficial to Wynn Resorts because it allows the company to lower estimates for the number of car trips to the casino over already congested roads. Car traffic, especially through Sullivan Square in Charlestown, is one of the major complaints raised by opponents, and a critical issue in the state gambling commission’s evaluation of any casino project.
Wynn’s competitor for the Boston area casino license, Mohegan Sun, is publicly taking issue with Wynn’s projections for the water shuttle program, saying Wynn’s passenger numbers “seem wildly optimistic,” and suggesting the casino would draw more cars than it asserts.
Wynn has proposed using custom-made catamarans, each able to carry 49 passengers, to connect a $1.6 billion hotel and casino on the Mystic River in Everett to Long Wharf in downtown and the World Trade Center in the Seaport, according to documents filed for review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.
As many as three boats would be in service at one time, running from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., and leaving as frequently as 20 minutes apart, said Chris Gordon, project manager for the Wynn development. The year-round, enclosed, and heated water shuttle would be low cost or free to customers of the resort, he said.
The company upped its boat ridership projections after a more in-depth study of other water transport services, and of the Boston tourist and convention markets, which the water shuttle program would target, said Gordon.
“The typical people who are going to use this are already in Boston and may not have a vehicle,” Gordon said. “Their options would be get on the Orange Line, get on the bus, take a taxi, or take the boat. We think if we can make the boat nice and efficient it will be the preferred option.”
Wynn has projected about 2,700 one-way passenger trips on an average day, which would represent roughly 1,350 people making the round trip, or a combination of round trips and one-way passengers who use the boat for one leg of travel and may take a cab or bus for the other leg, Gordon said.
The company projects about 3,600 trips on a typical busy Saturday. “A water service to a casino in Boston Harbor is a new product,” Gordon said. “Wynn is a excellent promotional organization but they haven’t done this before so we want to be sure we really promote the heck out of it.”
Jeff Mullan, a former state secretary of transportation and a consultant advising Mohegan Sun, questioned Wynn’s estimates, “given the distance on the water and the associated trip times, the amount of current boat traffic at the proposed dock locations, and the fact that only smaller boats can be used because of the limited clearance beneath the Alford Street bridge,” near the Wynn site.
“My guess would be that fewer people would use the boats than are projected and that many of those who do will only make a one way trip,” Mullan said, in a statement. “The result in both cases is that the amount of traffic on the street ends up being undercounted.”
Mohegan Sun has proposed building a casino at Suffolk Downs in Revere.
Boston Councilor Salvatore LaMattina accused Wynn Resorts of overestimating the potential ridership to distract attention from traffic problems at Sullivan Square, a notorious chokepoint for commuters.
“I don’t see 1,200 people a day taking water taxis,” he said. “Most people like to take their cars to a casino.”
LaMattina said he supported an earlier Suffolk Downs casino plan until East Boston voters rejected that proposal at a referendum in 2013. Now, he said he does not support either rival casino plan.
Gordon said the low-profile boats Wynn plans to use for the service could carry passengers beneath the bridge “during any tide.” He defended the ridership estimates, saying Wynn is projecting only a small percentage of water shuttle users from a huge pool of potential customers in Boston.
“In addition, the ferry will provide the most interesting trip — a harbor cruise — in year-round comfort,” he said. “Given those advantages and the very aggressive marketing campaign of the Wynn organization, we do not feel that the relatively small percentage of transit capture is overly optimistic.”
Eric Bourassa, transportation director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said Wynn’s ridership estimates are “probably on the high side,” but “in the realm of possibility.”
“These estimates are more art than science,” Bourassa said. With the water transit plan calling for “a pretty robust level of service, I think it will attract a decent ridership,” he said, though the service would need time to build up the number of people who would use it.
Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association, agreed “the interest and demand are there” for more water transportation in the harbor.
“For us it is most telling when developers are the ones pushing and subsidizing water transportation,” she said.
Wynn Resorts is paying for a Boston Harbor Association study on improving water shuttle service in the harbor, according to the company.
The state gambling commission is scheduled to choose a winning project in September.
In November, voters statewide will decide whether the casino law will be repealed.
Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.