MICHELE O’LEARY says the MBTA’s proposal to eliminate ferry service to deal with a COVID-inducted budget shortfall would turn her life upside down.
Currently, O’Leary takes the ferry from Hull to the Seaport in Boston every morning at 6 a.m. She arrives at 6:22, leaving plenty of time for her to make her shift at Massachusetts General Hospital by 6:45.
If the ferry goes away, her life would be a lot different. She could drive 7 miles, board a commuter rail train to South Station, and then make her way by subway, taxi, or foot to MGH. She could also spend an hour driving into town – as she did when the ferries shut down during the spring COVID surge – pay to park, and then walk to work.
“It was horrible,” she said of the driving commute.
The MBTA says not enough people are using the ferries right now to justify the cost of continuing to run them. Under the T’s proposal, scheduled to be voted on in early December, ferries servicing Boston and Logan Airport from Hull, Hingham, and Charlestown could stop in January.
“It’s a terrible idea. It’s basically cutting off the South Shore from Boston,” O’Leary said in a phone interview.
The ferries from Hingham and Hull have been operating since the 1980s with an interruption for COVID from mid-March until June. With many people working from home now, ridership is way down.
According to the MBTA, the ferries are currently providing 112 trips a day, serving 803 riders, or about seven riders per trip. In September, ridership between Hull, Hingham, and Long Wharf was down to 23 percent of September 2019 levels. Ferry ridership was down to 17 percent of September 2019 levels on the Charlestown ferry.
Shutting down the ferries would save an estimated $3.5 million in the current fiscal year and $13 million in fiscal 2022, which begins next July.
O’Leary says the hourly mid-day ferries are almost empty. She recommends paring back off-peak service and going with smaller MBTA boats. Coming home from work on Tuesday, there were 28 other people on her 4:30 p.m. ride home.
“To me it’s a no brainer. Do commuter hours, shut down one or two of the docks, and use the smaller boats,” she said. “Figure out which boats are most popular and keep those.”
While the MBTA owns some of the ferries, it contracts out all of the operation of the fleet to Boston Harbor Cruises, which is owned by the Hornblower Group. Paul Belforti, the chief operating officer of Hornblower, issued a statement saying the firm is ready to work with the T “to preserve this service and to continue to build for the long term.”
Alice Brown, director of planning at Boston Harbor Now, called the proposed MBTA cuts “premature,” and predicted they would deeply impact residents.
“To suggest that these services are being ‘temporarily put on hold’ ignores the damaging long-term effects on the residents and economy of Hingham and Hull,” said Brown.
Rep. Joan Meschino of Hull filled an amendment to the House budget that would have set aside a portion of state sales tax revenues to cover the cost of the ferries, but she withdrew it before it came up for consideration. Pre-pandemic, House officials approved a number of revenue raising measures, but the Senate never took them up.
At Monday’s meeting of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, scores of people called in or emailed to complain about proposed cutbacks to commuter rail, subway, bus, and ferry service. Ferry users formed the largest contingent, many of them extolling the environmental and social benefits of commuting by boat.
Karen Kovak of Hull said her husband uses the ferry to commute to work at the fish pier in Boston. “In our neighborhood, we know many others who rely on it, including a police officer and an elderly couple that can no longer drive and uses the ferry for medical treatment in Boston,” she said.
In Hingham, Maxine Stiegler said she and her husband are in the process of purchasing a condo at the Hingham Shipyard, but now they are questioning whether to proceed if the ferry is going away.
“We were under the impression when we went into contract that the Hingham ferry was part of the attraction there for us,” she said, adding that the loss would mean the value of the unit would decline.
Chris Dilorio, Hull’s director of community development and planning is worried that commute times will at least double for many residents, and roll back efforts to curb pollution. Calling water transit the “safest of all public transportation options” due to its ability to be in open air and keep people much more socially distant than others, Dilorio said that transit should be leading ridership recovery, not falling behind.
“The ferry for this community is an essential service,” he said.