A NEW FERRY SERVICE between East Boston and South Boston is launching on Monday, but it’s not quite what transportation advocates think of when they envision Boston Harbor as a blue highway.
The new service between Lewis Wharf Mall and Fan Pier is being launched on a pilot basis by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which already operates a ferry between Lovejoy Wharf at North Station and Fan Pier.
The cost of the North Station ferry is picked up by employers in the Seaport; the cost of the East Boston one-year pilot is being picked up by the Convention Center Authority initially, but with the hope that companies will eventually subsidize it when they see how many workers use it.
The new service will run every 20 minutes during the morning and evening commute hours. It won’t run midday, at night, or on weekends. The cost will be $5 for the seven-minute ride. It’s targeted toward employers and their workers, not the general public, although anyone can ride it. Lewis Wharf Mall is located near the T’s Maverick Station on the Blue Line.
Alice Brown, the chief of policy and planning at the advocacy group Boston Harbor Now, is thrilled that ferry service is being expanded in Boston Harbor. But she is quick to point out that the new ferry is catering to Seaport employers and not a part of the transit system. It’s an extension of one-off ferry services being run by a variety of groups, including restaurants, the Institute for Contemporary Art, and the Encore casino in Everett.
“If the goal is to get people off the roads, this is doing it,” Brown said. “If the goal is providing equitable ferry service, this is just a step in the right direction.”
Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler highlighted the new ferry service in a presentation to the MassDOT Board on Tuesday, pointing out that Lewis Mall Wharf was reconstructed using funds provided by MassDOT, the Massachusetts Port Authority, and the city of Boston and that ridership potential in East Boston was identified in a Boston Harbor Now study funded by MassDOT and Massport.
While the state has shown a willingness to repair piers and finance studies, it has shown little interest in expanding its ferry network. Every time the T has explored launching a ferry pilot, it has backed off because the rider subsidies were too high. Ferry service was also one of the first transit services to be cut when the agency began reducing service during COVID last year. Most service was later restored using federal relief funding.
The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority got into the ferry business through something of a back door. Employers in the Seaport several years ago were each running bus shuttles for employees struggling to commute to work when they realized it would be more cost efficient to centralize the shuttle service with the Convention Center Authority, which already operates shuttles for attendees at its conventions. That centralized bus shuttle service expanded to ferry service to North Station and now to East Boston.
Employers pay the cost of the North Station service, which allows their employees to ride for free while everyone else pays $5 a ride. That may be the model that eventually works on the East Boston ferry, but right now everyone pays $5.
Shannon McDermott, the director of transportation for the Convention Center Authority, said the agency purchased the boat it will be using for the East Boston route and is in the process of purchasing the two boats it uses for the North Station run. She said the annual operating cost of the East Boston route will be about $1 million.
McDermott is hopeful ridership will be strong on the new ferry service. She said an open house the agency held in June, where people were invited to take the ride, attracted 1,000 people over a two-hour period.
“People are eager to find ways to get to work faster,” she said.