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Privatizing public transit in the Boston area: Pair of plans shows possibilities, limits

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Does a privately funded bus system out of Newton have enough gas? What about that North Station-Seaport ferry?


Two recent plans—one more a proposal, one with a tentative start date—showcase how privatized public transit might work in the Boston area.

There is certainly a need for expanded transit options as the region’s growing population sprawls out from its commercial core due to stubbornly high housing costs. In short, people in the Boston area often can’t afford to live close to where they work (or they don’t want to live close).

And, with the T and commuter rail facing their own sets of challenges, privatizing public transit might be a solution.

These two plans each go beyond the model that’s already common in Boston as well as myriad other cities: That of the corporate shuttle hustling passengers to and fro hotels, convention centers, and airports.

North Station-Seaport ferry

Boston Globe via Getty Images

Sometime this winter, a privately funded and operated—but publicly managed—ferry is supposed to start running between Lovejoy Wharf near North Station and Fan Pier in the Seaport District.

Bay State Cruise Co. will operate the ferries under a $2.2 million contract with the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which in turn is managing the one-year pilot program on behalf a group of private businesses ponying up the dough.

Not inconsequently, the 97-seat ferries will be open only to employees and tenants of these businesses, which include Vertex, Fallon Co., and PWC. Members of the general public will eventually be able to board a few at a time if there’s room—but it will cost each between $5 and $12 a ride.

These ferries could end up being a boon in terms of reducing vehicular traffic or a boondoggle in that they end up underused and put off meatier solutions for providing mass transit to and around the Seaport District.

A new bus system out of Newton

Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock

What’s happening in Newton could be the first of its kind in the Boston region. There, developer Northland Investment Corp. is planning to subsidize the operations of an entirely new bus system.

It’s not out of altruism. The developer is looking for support for its 1.4-million-square-foot, mixed-use project on Needham Street. More than 800 apartments as well as stores, offices, and restaurants are part of Northland’s proposal (as are 1,900 parking spots).

The bus system the developer would set up to service the project—and this is crucial—would be open not only to residents or workers there but to the general public as well. And it would not just trundle riders to nearby stops, but as far afield as Cambridge, Boston’s South Station, and the Seaport District.

The system needs local approval, and it is unclear how long it might last after the Needham Street project is completed. But, as the Globe’s Jon Chesto points out, the idea might be one whose time has come. Something’s gotta give if people are going to be forced to keep leasing and buying that much farther out.