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Commuters flock down to the sea

For 3,800, the day gets under way from Hingham

By Paul E. Kandarian, Globe Correspondent, 8/19/2001

HINGHAM - No angry drivers, no accidents, no smoke-belching trucks, no oppressive heat, no blaring horns, and absolutely no traffic. This is commuting to work in Boston? Indeed it is, and it is also, quite literally, clear sailing all the way into the gut of the city's financial district.

And for 3,800 people a day on the MBTA's hugely successful commuter boat run out of Hingham Shipyard, which docks at Rowes Wharf immediately adjacent to the financial district, it's the only way to go.

"I've been riding this 81/2 years," said Debbie Tolini, an administrative assistant in the financial district who lives in Scituate near the Hingham line. "When I started, I took the Red Line and hated it. I took this one day when they were fixing the train and I was hooked, absolutely hooked."

It's an 11-minute ride for Tolini from her house to the T's Hingham Shipyard lot where parking is free, a rarity in public transportation. Combining that with the average 25-minute sail to Boston, it's a far cry from sitting in traffic an hour or more on the perpetually snail-like Southeast Expressway at the height of rush hour, she said, adding she'll never go back to riding the T rails.

For sheer ridership numbers, the T's commuter boat is neck-and-neck with the commuter rail, T officials said. The commuter boat averages around 3,800 riders a day, while the T's Old Colony commuter rail lines of Kingston-Plymouth and Middleborough-Lakeville average 3,995 and 4,415, respectively.

Commuter boat service has been available for 25 years. The T is the only publicly subsidized service and contracts with Boston Harbor Cruises in a five-year, $4.9-million contract that is up for bid next year. Other private boat services run commuter service, and a myriad of water transportation abounds in and around the city, including water taxis and a popular water shuttle to Logan Airport from Rowes Wharf.

But it is over the last five years or so, coinciding with the Big Dig, the mother of all motorized headaches, that the T's commuter numbers have risen dramatically. Over the past 10 years, daily ridership has doubled from around 2,000 a day to the current 4,000, said T officials and in the last four years, the numbers have risen 36 percent.

"People have really started using it in the last five years, especially those working in the Financial District," said Jon Carlisle, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

"Anytime anything is this successful, we're very pleased. We had a model to base it on with the restoration of the Old Colony (the South Shore commuter rail line), which far exceeded original predictions. We've seen much the same thing when people are given more commuter boat options."

About the only drawback at the Hingham site is parking, a common lament up and down the T's commuter rail lines. Commuters said that if they don't get to the Hingham lot, which has about 1,500 parking spaces, by 8:30, they have to jockey for space somewhere else in the massive Hingham Shipyard area, taking a shuttle bus from some, paying for parking in others. Carlisle said the T is looking at either expanding the existing parking site or doing a shuttle from outside parking areas.

Carlisle said no figures exist that back up the contention that drivers fed up with the Big Dig and who live near or in Hingham are taking the boat, but he doesn't doubt it's true.

"It could be a contributing factor, sure, but there's much more to be said for simple word of mouth," Carlisle said. "Someone in the Hingham area has an option of hopping on a ferry and being in Boston a lot quicker than driving? I'm sure they rave about that experience."

That they do. Riders jaded by years of battling four-wheel transportation on the Central Artery are positively ecstatic over a fresh-air and traffic-free ride to the city.

"The boat is so ideal," said Rick Wallwork, who does Web editing for FleetBank and has taken the boat for the last few years. "I get caught up on my reading, it's just relaxing. I wouldn't drive into Boston again under any condition."

Riding a commuter boat is such an overall part of the working lifestyle that people are basing at least part of their decision on where to live on the boat commute, real estate agents in the Hingham area said.

"Real estate options and the availability of the commuter boat go hand in hand," said Dianne Costello of the Hingham office of DeWolfe Real Estate. "People are looking for houses with both those requirements. I've really seen a lot of it in the last few years. Most of the homes I've sold to people who use the boat work in the Financial District. I have to say that is a factor."

Vance Cassell moved from Connecticut to Hingham based at least partly on the commuter boat, he said. He bought a house through Costello, who said she had him go to work on the boat one day and he fell in love with it.

"Hingham was on the top of our list" of places he and his wife wanted to live, said Cassell, who works in equity sales. "I'm door-to-door in 30 minutes. When I worked in New York, it was twice that, easily. Coming from what I came from, the quality of life is up about 300 percent, I'm not kidding."

Mary McCready, manager of Jack Conway Real Estate's Hingham office, said "the boat appeals to many buyers who want to enjoy their coffee in the morning, or even work on their laptops."

Mary Bigler of Coldwell Banker Hunneman in Hingham agreed, saying, "We keep a supply of commuter boat schedules in our office and always hand them out. People are definitely looking in this area based at least in part on the commuter boats."

Stoddard Rowley, senior vice president of sales at an investment firm, said the commuter boat was "a big part" in his decision to relocate to Hingham from Charlestown seven years ago.

"When I talk to people and they say `Hey, you live on the South Shore, traffic must be a nightmare,' I tell them about the boat and how I don't have to deal with traffic," Rowley said.

On the boat, with its magnificent views of the Boston skyline, the harbor islands, and planes peeling off into the sky from Logan Airport, commuting takes on a culture of its own for riders like Tolini.

"A group of us always stands in the same spot every day," Tolini said of the spot outside the cabin where many riders stay out of the weather and pop up a wall of Wall Street Journals every morning. "We've done this for four or five years now and I couldn't even tell you what the inside of the cabin looks like. We're out here, rain or snow. I figure I'm inside all day, I may as well stand outside for a while."

An added bonus on the ride is the occasional spotting of harbor seals or porpoises, she said. And last year was a sightseeing bonanza.

"We had practically our own review of the Tall Ships when they came in," Tolini said. "Where else could you get that?"

This story ran on page 1 of the Boston Globe on 8/19/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.