A water taxi dock, first proposed for the Mystic River in 2008, has gained new momentum, with the recent filing of a project outline by the city of Medford with the state Department of Transportation.
An overview of the project, the location of the site along Clippership Drive, cost estimates, and a time frame are outlined in the filing. The state must approve the scope of the work before the city could tap a $707,904 federal grant to fund a feasibility study, said Lauren DiLorenzo, the city’s community development director.
“The state will review it, make suggestions, or additions,” DiLorenzo said. “Once the state approves it, then we can send it to the federal government for approval. Once they approve it, then we could look at grant agreements.”
In 2008, the city was awarded a grant from the federal Ferry Boat Discretionary Program , run by the US Department of Transportation. The state transportation department will distribute the funds, DiLorenzo said.
“A water taxi linking the communities on the Lower Mystic River, such as Everett and Somerville, has long been discussed,” DiLorenzo said. If those other communities installed docks, the taxi could stop there, but also could stop at private boat clubs on the Mystic in Medford, or a state-run public boat launch near Station Landing, a development on the river that includes condos, apartments, retail and office space, she added.
“If we put the dock in, it would never be a waste,” she said. “Public access to the river is scarce, particularly in Medford.
“The idea is that people could hop on this boat, and get dinner in Medford Square or a show at Chevalier Theater.”
Although the project has been in the pipeline for at least four years, two city councilors said they were surprised to read about the grant funding in the city’s annual report to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, published in June.
“There has never been any public discussion about this,” said Councilor Robert Penta. “If the city is going to spend that kind of money, there should be a public hearing.”
Councilor Michael Marks called the proposed dock a “misguided attempt at economic development” at a time when the city is facing costly infrastructure projects, such as building a new public works facility.
“We have far more important pressing needs than a water taxi,” said Marks, who publicly questioned the project at an October City Council meeting. “We have to build a new public works facility; our schools need repairs. We should know our priorities.”
Mayor Michael J. McGlynn earlier this year proposed a $30 million capital construction plan to replace or repair city buildings. The plan, funded largely through the sale of public bonds, would build a new public works facility, fix a swimming pool at Medford High, and pay for repairs to police and fire stations.
McGlynn dismissed councilors’ criticism that they were not informed about the federal grant.
“They were invited to attend the press conference where this grant was announced,” he said.
McGlynn said a water taxi could boost the local economy by linking Medford with nearby communities, such as Everett and Somerville. Those communities have public and private boat docks where the taxi could possibly make a stop, he said.
“Right now, you can be at Station Landing in Medford, and look across [the river] at the Christmas Tree Shop. But even though it’s 200 yards away, you can’t get there across the river. You have to get in your car and drive 15 minutes,” he said. “There are opportunities to be tapped up and down the river.”
DiLorenzo noted that federal grant money earmarked for a water taxi could not be spent on capital repairs to city buildings. “You can’t use ferry boat money to pay for a public works building. The federal government wouldn’t allow it,” she said.
Still, Marks questioned if a water taxi dock is the best use of public dollars. “It’s taxpayers’ money, whether its federal funds or not,” he said. “The Mystic has a very narrow port in Medford . . . A lot of issues would have to be worked out.”
Although the grant was approved in 2008, work on the project could not begin until the city finished rebuilding Clippership Drive, which would provide access to a dock area. The city received about $2.3 million in federal and state funds to straighten the road, and build a park adjacent to the river. The project was completed last summer.
“We couldn’t do these two projects together,” DiLorenzo said. “We needed the road to access the dock area.”
If the scope-of-work proposal for the water taxi is approved by the state and federal governments, then the city would proceed with a feasibility study, according to DiLorenzo.
“The study will identify where it can go, the size of the boats it can accommodate, the general cost of operating it,” she said.
The project would also face lengthy state and local permitting, and public hearings.
“Environmental permitting is very cumbersome,” DiLorenzo said. “This will require meetings with city boards and regional entities. “I would expect a public participation process to engage elected officials, business persons, potential users.”