Lawrence Harmon

Full throttle

Plan for a new ferry service in Boston has legs

wesley bedrosian for the boston globe

EYES ARE rolling in East Boston where Mayor Menino is now promoting ferry service as a way to jump-start development along that neighborhood’s waterfront. It’s not the first time that the mayor has gathered a head of steam over the ferry issue. And that earlier effort was a titanic failure.

In 1995, Menino and former district city councilor Diane Modica launched ferry service between East Boston and downtown with $1 million in state and local funds. Over the subsequent 14 months, the ferry carried an average of only 1.3 passengers per trip. Despite their neighborhood’s rich maritime history, East Boston residents turned out to be water-shy.

In a speech this week to the city’s business leaders, Menino returned to the subject of water transportation as a vehicle to keep Boston “in a constant state of renewal, wave after wave.’’ But this time, the mayor may actually be on to something. The earlier ferry was a flop, in part, because it ran from the East Boston waterfront to downtown Boston’s Long Wharf, a trip that is easily and cheaply accomplished by subway.


The new ferry would be a time saver by running between East Boston and the less accessible Fan Pier on the South Boston waterfront, home to the city’s burgeoning “innovation district.’’ That could be a big boost for young workers who are finding employment and entertainment opportunities on the South Boston waterfront but can’t afford to live there. Housing in East Boston, meanwhile, is comparatively inexpensive.

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Commuting to work by boat would also hold aesthetic appeal to the so-called “creative class’’ of young researchers and techies working in science-based start-ups in the innovation district. Not so for East Boston immigrants commuting to jobs in downtown hotels back in the 1990s.

Still, there would be more confidence in this plan if Menino could produce a market analysis with specifics, such as the proposed seating capacity of the ferry, operating costs, ticket prices, anticipated ridership, funding sources, and other relevant factors. One of the key long-term decisions will be whether the city contracts out the service or purchases a boat of its own to lease to a licensed boat operator. Right now, Menino is operating on faith — faith that the Massachusetts Port Authority will accede to his request to subsidize the inner harbor ferry service by assessing a $1 to $2 surcharge on cruise ship passengers at the Black Falcon terminal. Massport officials, however, don’t appear especially enthusiastic about the idea.

Exciting ideas on improving water transportation in Boston Harbor gush forth occasionally only to wash up later on the shore. In 2010, town officials in Hull solicited proposals for ferry service between the popular, state-owned section of Nantasket Beach and Boston. No one bid. This year, only one ferry operator bid on the route, only to withdraw when the cost of fuel spiked. There has been a lot of gum-flapping over the years, as well, on creating a water loop between the cultural institutions in Charlestown, South Boston, and Dorchester, which would allow tourists and residents to hop on and off for visits to the USS Constitution, Children’s Museum, Institute of Contemporary Art, and JFK Library. But other than a short pilot program a few years ago, it never took off.

The success of water transportation frequently depends on finding ancillary uses for the boats during non-commuting hours, such as excursions to the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. But federal transportation officials who fund water transportation tend to frown on such uses due to the wear and tear on the vessels. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but it’s made tougher by the fact that there is no one state agency that provides coordinated oversight of water transportation or advocates on its behalf with the feds.


If Massport rejects the surcharge, Menino still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. Waterfront developers already pay into an escrow account specifically for the advancement of water transportation. The pier at the end of Lewis Street in East Boston could be put into usable shape for as little as $25,000, according the Boston Redevelopment Authority. And the roughly 1-mile run would take place across a protected section of the inner harbor, allowing for year-round use of a low-weight, high-speed vessel.

Even Menino, who is prone to seasickness, could probably make that trip in relative comfort. On balance, a ferry between East Boston and South Boston has legs.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.