Commuter boats suffer at Greenbush expense

Jennifer Mann and Stephanie Choate

Tom Hagstrom is the passenger the MBTA doesn’t like to talk about.

The Hingham resident is among the flock of former ferry riders who now take the Greenbush train as a preferred method of public transportation.

“I loved the boat. I moved to Hingham because of the boat,” he said this week as he rode the train back from his job in Boston.

Convenience and a cheaper ride convinced him to switch from boat to train, he said. The irony is both are run by private contractors for the MBTA.

One year after the $513 million commuter rail line began rumbling down the South Shore, the MBTA is in an odd position of competing with itself.

The Greenbush rail line was proposed as a way to reduce traffic jams on Route 3. It was to supplement the commuter boat, not replace it.

But ridership numbers from the MBTA reveal a troubling trend: Not only has Greenbush ridership been below expectations, but there has been a sharp drop in riders taking commuter boats to Boston.

The number of commuters riding ferries out of Hingham fell 17 percent – from 64,905 for the month of September, 2007, to 53,692 during September of this year.

The drop was even steeper for the MBTA-subsidized commuter boats that run between Quincy and Boston. Some of those runs make stops in Hull. Ridership on those boats declined 22 percent, from 31,996 in September of 2007 to 24,906 in September of this year.

The T could not provide numbers this week on how many rail line customers are former ferry boat riders. The Boston Globe reported in January, with the MBTA as the source, that up to one-third of Greenbush riders were former ferry riders.

Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the T, this week disputed that number as “an assumption” and added “clearly the reporter is confused.”

Pesaturo, who would only communicate through e-mail for this article, said diverting people from the ferries or Red Line opens up more spots for new commuters. He added it still takes cars off the road, because many people were previously commuting from several towns away to get to the ferries or Red Line stations.

Service on the Greenbush line began on Halloween of last year. The trains operate between the Greenbush section of Scituate near the Marshfield and Norwell town lines and South Station in Boston. There were seven stations in Scituate, Cohasset, Hingham, Weymouth and Braintree. The ferries operate only between Boston and Quincy, Hingham and Hull.

“Make no mistake, moving people off of the crowded Red Line or ferries and onto the Greenbush line is a good thing,” Pesaturo said. “The T has always predicted and encouraged that type of transit behavior.”

Martha Bewick of Hingham and her husband, John Bewick, were among the early train opponents urging the state to use the money for Greenbush to improve the existing public transportation options.

Bewick said she and others were upset – but not surprised – when the T announced in its 2008 draft service plan for all its public transportation operations in eastern Massachusetts that it would pare down ferry boat service.

“I have real questions about how they can justify that, except that they desperately need money,” Bewick said.

State Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, said the MBTA had predicted half the riders from Greenbush would come off existing forms of public transportation such as the ferry.

“It’s unfortunate the two are going to compete against each other at a time they’re looking to do service cuts,” Hedlund said Tuesday. “We have to be vigilant to maintain commuter boat service.”

He said the cuts are a sign that the MBTA, under mounting debt, should not have gone ahead with Greenbush.

“They couldn’t afford to build it, now they’re realizing they can’t afford to operate it,” he said.

Pesaturo said plans to cut ferry service are on hold while the state’s Executive Office of Transportation develops a comprehensive strategy for all public and private water transportation services in the state – an effort announced shortly after the draft service plan was released.

Jennifer Mann may be reached