Hy-Line ferry asks SSA to ease terms
The Steamship Authority (SSA) Tuesday will weigh a request from Hy-Line Cruises for changes in the licensing agreements under which the company provides high-speed and conventional ferry service to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
Hy-Line wants to drop underutilized trips, be allowed to exceed the Steamship Authority imposed passenger cap on fast-ferry trips to Nantucket and not be required to pay licensing fees during winter periods when the SSA does not provide fast-ferry service. The company said increased operating costs, most notably for fuel, and a recent decline in ridership prompted the request.
The Hy-Line request is expected to be the main piece of business when the Steamship Authority meets at 9:30 am on Tuesday, March 18, in Woods Hole for its regular monthly business meeting.
In most cases, private companies, including Hy-Line, that provide ferry service from the Massachusetts mainland to the islands pay a per-passenger fee to the Steamship Authority, an arrangement negotiated as part of a licensing agreement.
The statutory licensing of the authority was put in place to prevent private operators from skimming profitable summer passenger service and leaving the boatline with no counterweight to off-season service deficits.
Hy-Line provides year-round service between Hyannis and Nantucket and seasonal service between Hyannis and Oak Bluffs. The company is highly regarded on Nantucket where it has earned a reputation for customer service and reliability.
Hy-Line first introduced fast-ferry service to Nantucket in 1995. As passengers switched from slow Steamship Authority boats to the fast Hy-Line catamaran, the SSA was forced to play catch up and introduced fast-ferry service.
Other than a request to eliminate high-speed service to Oak Bluffs in April and November, the impact from Hy-Line's requests would be felt on the Nantucket route. The licensing agreement currently sets a 200-passenger threshold for 8 of 12 daily summer trips.
In a letter to Steamship Authority general manager Wayne Lamson, Hy-Line vice president Murray Scudder Jr. said the restriction is burdensome for the company and passengers are needlessly turned away from a vessel with the capacity to take 300 passengers. "This causes a great deal of frustration for our employees and passengers alike," said Mr. Scudder.
The company is also looking for relief during the winter. The Steamship Authority and Hy-Line work together to schedule off-season boat maintenance so that there is always high-speed service. Mr. Scudder said costs, including fuel, added up to a $427,327 deficit for the period from Jan. 1 to April 14.
Nantucketers would see the impact of any decision at the fare box. Under the current formula, deficits must be made up by riders on that route.
Marc Hanover, Vineyard Steamship Authority member, said Tuesday that he understands the pressures Hy-Line faces but his first responsibility is the financial health of the authority. Mr. Hanover, an Oak Bluffs businessman, said he is waiting to see what management recommends but that he is concerned about taking any action that would affect SSA revenues or send passengers to a competitor.
Less problematic to Mr. Hanover is a request from Cape and Islands Transport, which provides seasonal passenger service between Falmouth and Edgartown aboard the Pied Piper, to reduce the number of weekend trips from five to four. Mr. Hanover said the Steamship Authority recently hosted a delegation of ferry officials from Washington State Ferries. The visitors traveled to Woods Hole for a firsthand tour of the Island Home. The state system wants to build two ferries based on the design of the Island Home for service on its Port Townsend-Keystone route.
According to reports in the Peninsula Daily News, the captains and engineers who inspected the Island Home and rode on her were impressed with her handling capabilities and maneuverability, particularly in rough weather conditions.