The good news, according to maritime director Anne D. Aylward of the Massachusetts Port Authority, is that shipping through the Port of Boston is cheaper than shipping through New York.

The bad news: it's more expensive than shipping through any other port.Speaking at Massport's third annual maritime conference, Ms. Aylward was blunt about the need to reduce Boston's costs in order to become more broadly competitive.

For too long we've hidden behind the fact that we're cheaper than New York, said Ms. Aylward in her State of the Port Report. New York is not the goal we should be aiming for. We have to get our costs competitive with ports south of New York and north of it.

It came as no surprise, of course, that Massport sees its future competitiveness in terms of labor.

While conceding that Boston's costs are particularly high due to its relatively low container volumes handled at separate terminals, Ms. Aylward laid the major blame for port costs on wages and work rules.

A just-released port strategy report also takes the good-news-bad-news approach to the labor situation.

However, it says, labor relations are stable for the fourth year in a row and assessments to steamship lines have been cut over 15 percent in the current contract with the International Longshoremen's Association. But, it says, If the labor environment does not improve, significant non-containerized operations are unlikely.

Massport is putting new emphasis on competition with successful non-ILA operations, like the one in Portland, Maine, which have made off with some of Boston's bulk cargoes, like newsprint. Ms. Aylward said she has had clear indications that Boston would get some cargoes back if the labor price was right.

Ms. Aylward tied the labor prospects tightly to the future of several under-utilized piers and port facilities under Massport control.

We need to make a decision in this port as to whether we can competitively go after that cargo or whether we're going to take our non- container terminals and develop them as world trade centers, restaurants and other revenue-generating activities.

Massport says it isn't relying solely on labor concessions to reduce costs. Other ideas listed for consideration include establishment of an operating subsidiary such as that of the Virginia Port Authority's Virginia International Terminals, volume or direct call incentives such as wharfage discounts, consolidation of container terminal activities, and automation of Massport's Moran Terminal container operation.

Massport officials said they are also aware that future growth is linked to a host of other factors such as the success of a massive 12-year highway and tunnel project to ease traffic in and around Boston. Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Frederick P. Salvucci assured port users that every effort is being made to keep construction from adding to port traffic.

On the bright side, officials are playing up Boston's new service of the huge Atlantic Class vessels, expected to start next month, as a strong vote of confidence in the port's vitality.

New cargo figures for the total Port of Boston, including 22 private terminals, show port trade of 18,391,758 tons last year, a 1.0 percent increase over 1986 figures. While imports fell 1.5 percent to 15,574,653 tons, exports rose 14.5 percent to 2,817,105 tons. The largest export gain was in scrap metal, rising 41.6 percent to 729,728 tons.

General cargo at Massport facilities of 1,083,458 tons declined 2.2 percent last year, however, seeming to reflect a moderation in the trade imbalance. Total imports of 800,656 tons dropped 3.7 percent while total exports of 282,802 tons gained 2.1 percent. Containerized imports of 650,412 tons were down 5.5 percent, but container exports rose 1.9 percent to 282,259 tons.