There’s a new public transit service coming to Boston Harbor. Sort of.
Later this month, ferries will begin shuttling commuters between Lovejoy Wharf near North Station and Fan Pier in the transit-starved Seaport District, with trips every 20 minutes during rush hour. The service will be run by Bay State Cruise Co. under a $2.2 million contract with the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which is taking the unusual role of overseeing the one-year pilot program for a group of Seaport companies and landlords.
But to start, the ferries will be off-limits to members of the general public. In the first few weeks, the 97-seat boats will be open only to employees or tenants of the group funding the service, which includes Vertex, PWC, and Fan Pier developer Fallon Co. Eventually, members of the public will be allowed onboard, but only a handful at a time, and they will have to pay.
The new service is similar to the private shuttles operated by companies, commercial landlords, or consortiums such as the Longwood Medical Area campus, but with some exceptions: It is operated by a public agency and has some room for the general public. In that sense the ferry is a kind of hybrid between public and private transit.
Nate Little, a spokesman for the convention center authority, said initially restricting passengers will allow officials to monitor ridership trends. Eventually, five seats will be reserved for the public, perhaps starting in February.
Unlike with transportation run by the MBTA, those riders will need to reserve spots using a smartphone app, and their ride won’t be cheap: A one-way trip in the peak direction — to the Seaport in the morning, and back to North Station at night — will cost $12, while employees of member companies will ride free. For full-paying riders coming into Boston on North Shore commuter trains, the ferry ticket would at least double their cost of transportation.
The reverse commute — trips against rush-hour traffic — will have more seats for the public, and cost $5, in a bid to boost ridership, Little said.
The setup bothers Steve Hollinger, an activist in Fort Point who has called for increased public control of services and open space in the booming Seaport District. While employee shuttles operated by the private sector are common around Boston, he said a transit service overseen by a public agency like the convention center authority should be more widely open to the public.
“If MCCA is expanding its mission to provide transit services beyond its needs as a convention center authority, it has the same responsibility to equitable access as the MBTA does,” Hollinger said. “Would it be legitimate for the MBTA to provide services based on a policy of whoever pays the most has priority access to seats, if this policy was more profitable? Would that be wise policy?”
But Richard Martini, chief operating officer at Fallon Co., said the system is fair because the companies are paying for the service, with the MCCA simply organizing the operation while not putting any public funds toward it. Martini encouraged city and state transportation officials to launch more ferries that could serve more of the public.
“I think we looked at this honestly as business groups and owners and developers in the Seaport trying to address known traffic opportunities or transportation opportunities,” he said. “The quickest way to get there was doing it ourselves, frankly. . . . To have people say that it’s a bad thing is very disturbing.”
A similar hybrid ferry is expected later this year, when the Encore Boston Harbor casino opens. Wynn Resorts will run ferries between the casino on the Mystic River in Everett and various points along Boston’s shoreline. Unlike the Seaport ferry, the casino boat will run during off-peak hours as well. While the casino ferry will be open to the public, casino officials have not said what the tickets will cost — or whether casino patrons will get special pricing or priority seating.
In the Seaport, Little promised that “public riders will absolutely have access to the ferries.” The $12 pricing, he said, is in line with the cost of a private water taxi on the harbor.
He added the public may ultimately wind up getting more than five seats on certain trips. For example, officials may find that boats operating earlier in the day have fewer employees from the funding companies onboard, allowing them to open more seats.
“We anticipate having more seats available but need to determine ridership patterns during the rush hours,” he said.
The ferry will replace some of the bus shuttles that the convention center authority has been operating on behalf of most of the same companies since 2015. Little said this would benefit the public by taking vehicles off the Seaport’s congested roads.
That bus service was created after city and state officials called for consolidating all the individual corporate shuttles that were then crowding Seaport streets. The shuttles are not open to the public at all, though some riders have had success sneaking on.
At a Boston City Council hearing in November, a business group that helped organize the shuttle system defended it, arguing the shuttles serve a need that the MBTA and other public bodies have failed to satisfy.
“The people that are on those buses are the public,” said Rick Dimino, president of A Better City, a business-backed nonprofit that advocates about transportation and land-use issues. “Those are citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that ultimately are deciding to take rail to North Station, or the Orange Line to North Station, and then get on a private shuttle bus that wasn’t being provided by anybody else. We would be happy to see the public sector and the MBTA pick up these people.”