Amid all the discussion and action on cleaning up the harbor and developing the waterfront, the future of Boston as a working port has not been neglected. Those responsible for the port's commercial life have plans for upgrading commercial fish-handling facilities, attracting more cruise ships to Boston by providing new docks, maintaining the port's modern cargo-handling facilities, and finding new ways to use the harbor for transporting people.
David W. Davis, executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), says the harbor is in ''good shape'' with regard to traditional uses. ''The port of Boston plays a vital role in New England's regional economy, '' he points out.
Massport, established by state legislation, owns and maintains many of the harbor's docks and freight facilities. Mr. Davis says the agency conducted a study in 1980 which showed the port's economic impact on the region to be approximately $155 million annually. Over the past decade, Massport has committed millions of dollars to boosting this shipping trade and upgrading its facilities.
Anne D. Aylward, Massport's maritime director, says that between July and October the volume of freight shipped through the port increased by 41 percent compared with the same period last year.
The port of Boston is the 28th busiest in the nation, but Ms. Aylward says there is room for further, substantial growth. In addition to the Massport facilities, which handle such commodities as consumer goods, high technology equipment, and automobiles, there are a large number of private freight facilities that handle ''bulk products'' such as petroleum and scrap metals. Massport officials plan to award a contract next month for the construction of a new passenger terminal in South Boston to handle cruise ships. Some 15 such ships come to Boston each year, but Massport officials say they hope that number can be doubled.
Paul McGinn, project manager for Massport's fish pier, says the agency will spend $22 million to rehabilitate the aging pier and give a boost to the commercial fishing industry.
The first and second floors of the two main buildings on the pier will be used for fish processing, but the third floors are being renovated as office space. The office rents will help subsidize the fishing industry, Mr. McGinn says, as Massport will be able to charge the fishermen rents below the going rate for harbor real estate.
Although the Boston fishing fleet will never begin to approach its former size, McGinn says it's not ''an insignificant industry. Despite what some people say, it has a strong future here.''
A team of representatives from the state, city, and the Roman Catholic archdiocese is working to find permanent docking space for Boston's 20 to 30 lobster boats. Massport planner Anne Meyers, who is coordinating the state's effort, says the lobstermen ''are trying to form a cooperative, and we're trying to help them find a site.''
In addition to maintaining shipping and fishing, some people hope that soon there will be a waterborne transportation system whisking people around the harbor.
Lisa Chapnick, Boston commissioner of traffic and parking, says, ''In Boston you can't widen the steets, so a need to get people in and out of the city as efficiently as possible led us right to the harbor.'' She envisions a network of water ''taxis'' from downtown to the Harbor Islands, the South and North Shores, and the airport.
Water and land transportation systems will have to be coordinated, Ms. Chapnick notes, so that ''when you get off the boat you can get to a different place.''
One idea is to have the boats dock in Fort Point Channel right by South Station, she says. ''With the development of South Station as a . . . transportation terminal (for buses, trains, and the subway), it seems a natural to connect with water.''
Another option would be to run shuttle buses from Rowes Wharf, where South Shore commuter boats now dock, to South Station, Chapnick says.
She admits that ''it will take an enormous amount of re-education to get people out of their cars.'' But if boat fares are competitive with land-based transit, and if the boats are reliable and comfortable, she says, a water transportation system should be attractive to Bostonians. Boat operators will have to be subsidized, Chapnick admits, for the first five or six years. But she projects that Boston will have a working harbor transportation sysem within two years.
Others are not so optimistic. One planner said she, too, would like to see a harbor-based transportation system. But within two years there will probably not be adequate docking facilities around the harbor, she said. Nor will it be an easy or quick task to secure federal or state subsidies to start such an operation. Working independently, Massport will sponsor an experimental ferry program next summer. Massport's Anne Meyers says the agency might someday be asked to run a ferry service. ''The big question is what's the market? It's possible a lot of people don't like to ride boats,'' she says. Rather than conduct an expensive marketing survey, Massport officials decided to spend their money on a test program.
Many of the details have not yet been worked out, she says. But the service will probably run from July to October and will link downtown Boston with Logan airport. A shuttle bus will connect the pier and airport terminals, Meyers says. Since every pier in downtown Boston will be under construction next summer, however, locating a dock presents a problem. Massport is negotiating with several Boston boat operators to participate in the test program. Ideally, says Meyers, boat service would run throughout the day, and during rush hours there would be a boat at least every half-hour.
Since boat owners are not likely to invest in new equipment for a short-term experiment, Meyers explains, they will try to fit in the shuttle service around their sightseeing or other operating schedules. Thus, coordinating service may be difficult, she says.