The Harbor can give us a way out of gridlock

When a power blackout hit New York City last month, some courageous citizens took it upon themselves to direct traffic at cross streets for hours at a time. When government resources falter, it’s only natural for support to come from private citizens. That’s OK for the short term, but not forever. Here in Boston, private dollars are going toward transportation services that should be government’s responsibility.

Traffic is so bad in downtown Boston that a group of businesses, led by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, is ferrying commuters from North Station to the Seaport along the water rather than subject them to the mile-plus snarl of paralyzed gridlock. The ICA pays for a private ferry to bring its visitors just several thousand feet across the harbor to its East Boston gallery. And now a restaurant and the Encore casino are bringing customers to and from their doors along the water.

In some ways, this hodgepodge of waterway activity is encouraging. Finally, commuters are turning toward the water and away from the roadway. In communities like Hingham and Hull, riders have voted with their feet to get out of their cars and into these boats. In Charlestown, there’s a commuting ferry every 15 minutes. But elsewhere — in Lynn, Quincy, and East Boston — ferries either don’t exist or do so most fleetingly. It’s time for these disparate water routes to find order, resources, and leadership.

Commuter ferries are nothing new to the region. Beginning in 1631, the Winnisimmet Ferry carried passengers from what is now known as Chelsea to Boston’s North End. It was the oldest ferry in the country and operated until 1917.

Today, ferries run regularly throughout the harbor, now with more routes than ever before. Hingham and Hull commuter boats are served by the MBTA and run year-round, with frequent trips throughout commuting hours (although a ferry from Hull ran aground off Long Island on Friday). These sea routes have been game-changers for both communities, with realtors reporting that Higham home buyers want to move closer to the shipyard, and Hull’s own real estate market heating up.

When commuters take to the water, the benefits go well beyond a scenic ride that is faster than the roadway. The MBTA claims 1.3 million ferry riders per year. Fewer cars on the highway and bodies on trains frees up commuting options for the rest of us.

Thankfully, people are working to bring more resources to our waterways. Boston Harbor Now has completed a study of water transportation in and around the harbor, and has made two main recommendations. Both are smart. One calls for an inner-harbor connector, a route that ping-pongs from Charlestown, East Boston, Long Wharf, and Fan Pier, providing continuous service for multiple dense neighborhoods along the water. The other would transport commuters south of the city with pickups in Quincy and Dorchester. The study lacks a third recommendation that would solidify North Shore access — perhaps by combining the existing Salem ferry, which is also supported through weekend tourist activities, with Lynn’s ongoing efforts for a commuter ferry of its own.

On several occasions this summer I paid the $15 fare to take the Water Taxi from East Boston to the Seaport to meet my partner for dinner. It was a glorious ride, and I thought to myself how lucky I am to live here. But transporting across the harbor whether for work or for play shouldn’t be limited to only those with access or money — it should be a public good available to us all.

Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly classified who is allowed to take the Encore ferry. The general public, as well as Encore customers, can take the ferry.

Mike Ross is an attorney at Prince Lobel. Partners at the firm have represented MassDOT and the MBTA.