NEW BEDFORD — The harbor was a much busier place than usual last summer, as a strong revival of Nantucket ferry service boosted Seastreak’s passenger numbers and ridership skyrocketed on launches to and from Pope’s Island, local moorings, City Pier and other spots, ferry and harbor leaders said Thursday.
“We definitely saw an incline (in passengers),” Seastreak general manager John Silvia said Thursday. “It was a good season, very good.”
Silvia, reached outside his office and without access to firm numbers, said Seastreak had about 45,000 passengers on the first season of revived ferry service to and from Nantucket, which ran from May 18 through Labor Day. Seastreak’s service to Martha’s Vineyard also began May 18, and ran through Columbus Day.
Total ridership for all Seastreak services over the summer was nearly 120,000, he said, well above the summer 2015 total of about 70,000.
Silvia said in May that Seastreak was expecting to increase ridership by about 37,000 passengers.
“I think the service outperformed what we were expecting,” said Ed Anthes-Washburn, port director for the city’s Harbor Development Commission (HDC). “I think it’s a great sign for New Bedford that in the first year, that (Nantucket) service was going like gangbusters. We look forward to getting as many of those people to stop in and learn about New Bedford as we can.”
Increases in ferry passengers can have ripple effects throughout the local economy. Anthes-Washburn said a difference in local foot and vehicle traffic was noticeable over the summer.
He said that over the Fourth of July weekend, for example, “we filled the Whale’s Tooth parking lot to capacity” for the first time in about 10 years.
“We definitely saw a big difference in parking revenue,” he said.
Silvia said the Nantucket ferry service “absolutely” will continue next year, in addition to other current destinations — and new destinations could be coming in future years.
Silvia said Seastreak is “building a new boat” that will be based in New York City and make runs to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while docking in New Bedford over the summer weekends.
Once that boat is on the water, Silvia said, a Seastreak boat currently used in New York will come here. That 141-foot vessel has a capacity of 500 passengers, he said, and could increase spots for Vineyard service while also freeing up a smaller boat for potential runs to new destinations, possibly starting in 2018.
“Potentially Provincetown, maybe Block Island, we’re not sure,” Silvia said. “We’re excited to be growing the New Bedford end of things. There are a lot of new things coming up on the horizon in the next few years that will continue our growth and really put us on the map.”
Anthes-Washburn said recreational boating activity picked up on the harbor, as well. Ridership on the HDC’s launch service jumped from just over 1,000 last summer to more than 3,000 rides this summer, he said.
Much of the increase was seen in “transient moorings,” or people coming in on boats from outside the area, he said.
Anthes-Washburn said while the busiest route for launch rides was between moorings and the Pope’s Island marina, the second-busiest was between the island and City Pier — indicating summertime visitors were heading toward events on the pier or downtown.
“We’re showing people that New Bedford is a unique place to visit, and that seems to be resonating,” he said.