Hingham, Mass. — Cruising on the slow boat to Boston beats driving on the Southeast Expressway any day - construction or no construction. That's the consensus among riders aboard one of the six ferries that each day shuttles commuters between their jobs in the city and their homes on the South Shore.
''It's the most reliable mode of transportation there is,'' said Peter Stathopoulos during the 30-minute trip across Boston Harbor to Hingham. ''(The boat) may break down once a year. And if it does, who cares? We all get to stay out here and float around,'' he added, his arm swinging in a wide arc to hug the harbor.
Exactly one month ago, road crews moved onto the Expressway to begin an overhaul of the 8.3-mile stretch that links downtown Boston to the South Shore and communities beyond. Since then, the number of daily passengers on the commuter boats has increased by about 200, says Michael Meyer, director of planning for the state Department of Public Works (DPW).
This figure is not so impressive compared with the DPW's tally for other Expressway alternatives: During the past month 1,100 more people took the commuter railroads and about 750 additional riders traveled to and from the South Shore via the subway during rush hours. Even so, commuter-boat service appears to have the potential to be a major transit alternative during the Expressway reconstruction.
The Hull-to-Boston boat currently ferries about 110 passengers across the harbor but has capacity for 400, notes Carolyn Kiley of Bay State Spray & Provincetown Steamship Co., which operates the run.
''We're aiming for 1,000 (commuters) a day in each direction'' on the Hingham-to-Boston run, says Cecile Papazian of DPW's Executive Office of Transportation and Construction. ''You can see how that compares with the 450 a day now.''
Although ridership has jumped in the past month, both agree that summer weather will really bring out the commuter boaters. The 450 figure ''can easily double in the summer,'' says Ms. Papazian.
A suntan is one of the amenities of daily commuting across the harbor, says one Hingham-bound passenger. But on this early-April afternoon, the skies are gray and the wind is raw, whipping at the people waiting on Rowe's Wharf. When the ferry arrives, most of the some 50 commuters steer themselves to the warm cabin.
Even without the sunshine, commuter boating beats the Expressway by a mile, they say.
''It's faster,'' quips one in a pin-striped suit, ensconced in a booth across from the well-patronized concession stand.
''I think it's cheap. Cheaper than gas,'' says Mark Kameron of Hingham.
''Then there's the 'fun factor,' '' adds the man next to him.
The ''fun factor'' seems to count for much. Indeed, the mood on board evokes memories of an after-school band practice - it's a close-knit group of people who get together to make a lot of noise. The hubbub in the cabin harmonizes with the hum of the engine as the boat speeds past Squantum toward Hingham pier.
Many, like Mr. Stathopoulos, are veteran commuter boaters with six or seven years of seafaring under their belts. Others, like Mr. Kameron, were landlubbers until predictions of gridlock on the Expressway convinced them to leave their cars on the South Shore.
For Kameron, choosing the commuter boat on March 19 was a process of elimination. ''(The Expressway) was already bad, as was the (rapid-transit) Red Line.
''I was looking into moving,'' he adds. But now that he's discovered the commuter boat, ''you'll never get me out of Hingham.'' At $3 for a one-way ticket, the boat is cheaper than driving, Kameron adds. And he saves gasoline, up to $6 a day for parking, and wear and tear on his Mazda - ''not to mention wear and tear on me.''
Before the Expressway project began, three commuter boats were operating between Boston and the South Shore. Now there are six: two fast ferries (30 -minute rides) and one slow boat (50-minute ride) between Hingham and Boston; one Hull boat (50-minute ride); and a new two-boat service from Squantum (25 -minute rides).
The state is subsidizing the service on the two fast boats during the Expressway reconstruction. By contrast, the new Squantum service - operated by Harbour Crossing Company - is a private venture, says Martha Reardon, an associate commissioner with the DPW.
Preparations for the boat service were under way last July, but Mr. Casey says he speeded up the plans to coincide with the Expressway construction. He says the company will invest $2 million just in the commuter boat service.
So far, the two high-speed boats boast three lounges, telephones, stereo, and attendants, and the docks have been custom-designed for commuter boats. The service is part of a new development project - which includes enlarging the marina and building condominiums - at Marina Bay in Quincy.
The increasing traffic across Boston Harbor may also prove to be a boon for the area surrounding the Hingham pier.
Right now the area is practically deserted, dotted with empty warehouses. But there's a possibility that Hingham Harbor will become the Harbor Islands headquarters.
''If that happens,'' says the DPW's Cecile Papazian, ''there are plans to substantially upgrade the surrounding area.'' And some state offices may be relocated here from Boston, adds Commissioner Reardon.
However, the winds of change are not yet blowing hard in Hingham. Disembarking here, Laura Justinius of Cohasset points out a newly paved, jet-black parking lot near the pier - the only visible sign of new development.
''It used to be a big mud lot,'' she says.
Mrs. Justinius and her husband, Peter, have heard about the planned improvements. But even without them, the couple - who moved to Cohasset in December - plans to keep on boating to Boston. They drove in on the Expressway one day and vowed ''never again,'' Mr. Justinius says.