To Save Our Ferry, We Must Have Vision
Last week’s Transcript article seemed to relate that the Town Ferry was a uniquely financially unsustainable operation. While the numbers presented may be accurate, comments from Town officials were more discouraging. Have we as a Town lost our determination and vision? We hope not. To ensure fair and balanced reporting it is important to view the ferry in context.
First- EVERY form of mass transportation (including airlines and airports) suffered horrific financial losses because of decreased ridership due to the pandemic. The ferry is no different and in fact performed proportionally better than many other larger transportation providers. At the same time, EVERY form of transportation- including roads, bridges and highways- receive heavy taxpayer subsidies and are not expected to be profitable. Just like our utilities, transportation is a public good.
Second – The US government under both Presidents Biden and Trump provided hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars to transit, Amtrak, airlines and Logan to keep these systems from falling apart. Our ferry was originally provided via a federal grant and should be eligible for continuing support, similar to the eligibility of the MBTA’s ferry system. The T writ large received almost $2 billion dollars in aid. Have we asked the T for some of those dollars and proactively requested that our Congressional delegation make sure we receive our fair share?
Third- the Commonwealth is sitting on $5 BILLION of Covid impact aid from the federal government. The intent of these dollars is to assist systems in need and supplement and expand upon previously provided subsidies. We should be actively meeting with our state representative and senator to ask for a financial solution for the ferry from these monies. State subsidies and grants should not be avoided- they are critical for our town roads and infrastructure, so why not for the ferry?
Fourth and finally, it is very hard operationally and financially to operate a single ferry boat, not to mention by a single municipality like Winthrop. The network effect in mass transit is an enormous benefit that our ferry does not currently offer. Hingham citizens do not have to pay (except for the ticket price of a ride) anything extra to the MBTA for the ferry service they receive AND they can some days choose to use their fare card to hop on the commuter rail or on the nearby Red line. Why is such a wealthy town afforded these luxuries while Winthrop is not? Have we petitioned the Governor, our representative and senator about folding our ferry into the T? This would be the single greatest action Winthrop officials could – and should – take to make the ferry sustainable for the long term. And each time state officials come looking for photo ops, money and votes, they should be told to do that.
We appreciate the need to carefully manage the Town budget. To abandon the ferry, though, without taking advantage of the enormous opportunities right in front of us to make it sustainable would not be responsible or defensible.
It is worth noting that in three of the last four fiscal years (2018-2019-2020-2021), despite the enormous operational difficulty and the minimal marketing effort by the town, the ferry team has managed to remain cash neutral or even cash positive by competently leveraging state grants, managing costs and promoting ridership (See table 1). According to the FY 2021 and FY2022 budget documentation available on the Town of Winthrop’s website, no money from the general fund was used during this period, and yet the benefits to the community have been great. This demonstrates that the Ferry, in a non-pandemic year, can be a cash neutral enterprise that creates economic value for the town and employment, reduces congestion and pollution on our roads, and enhances our quality of life and the town’s prestige. This is, by all accounts, an exceptional success for a public transport enterprise that ought to be celebrated.
The ferry continues to be Winthrop’s best kept secret, due in no small part to limited marketing. If the town increased its marketing efforts beyond the periodic Facebook post, to Winthrop, Quincy and Boston, we could attract new customers.
The bottom line is that our ferry is an enormous asset in normal times, and normality is slowly returning. Traffic congestion on our roads has surpassed pre-covid volumes. Once Suffolk Downs is built out and the airport comes back Winthrop will be even more drastically burdened. There are many ways to solve the ferry problem. Failing to do so would be an enormously shortsighted failure on the part of the Town. It’s up to our interim town manager and the Council to develop a plan and execute it. We respectfully request that they do just that.
SAVE OUR FERRY
Robert C. Morfino
Sarah Jane Fourness