New Chappy Ferry owner seeks rate increase
The reaction of Chappaquiddick residents ranged from resigned support to strong opposition when ferry owner Peter Wells formally requested a rate hike on Monday, two months after taking ownership of the ferry business.
Mr. Wells asked Edgartown selectmen during the hearing for permission to raise the roundtrip rate for a vehicle from $10 to $12, and the roundtrip passenger rate from $3 to $4.
Mr. Wells has already raised rates for commercial vehicles. In May, he plans to raise prices for discount ticket books, as well as the subsidized rate available to year-round Chappy residents.
According to state law, selectmen have the right to set ferry rates. Mr. Wells believes they can set only the maximum rate, and that he is free to set rates below that for volume discounts, residency discounts, and other classes of ferry customers.
A committee of people assembled last fall, originally to review purchase of the ferry by the town, issued an inconclusive report at the end of seven months of work, but they did issue several recommendations. Among them was a request that the selectmen set up a procedure to review requested rate increases, and that all categories of fares be reviewed. Selectmen have taken no action on those recommendations.
Photo by Susan Safford
Mr. Wells cited a number of factors behind his request to increase rates, including fuel costs, insurance costs, cost of living increases for employee salaries, and construction of a new ferry. He also said the new breach in the Norton Point Beach has increased the cost of operating the ferry.
In April 2007, a powerful storm ripped a large channel through the beach, wiping out the only land route to Chappaquiddick, and leaving the small private ferry as the only way to get a vehicle on or off Chappy.
"The tidal currents at the ferry crossing have changed dramatically," said Mr. Wells. "The ferries travel up to three times farther through the water, now. More power is necessary to leave the slips and to maneuver to enter the slips."
"It's a bit of a shock," said selectman Arthur Smadbeck. "Things haven't changed that much. The breach has been there almost a year. Oil prices are no secret. I was really not expecting to be dealing with any kind of rate issues, at least until the fall."
About 20 people appeared at the hearing. Email responses assembled for the hearing totaled nine in favor, and 34 against the proposed rate hike. Selectmen said they continue to receive comments.
While most lauded Mr. Wells's efforts at operating the ferry, some saw the ferry rate hikes as inevitable. Others saw it differently.
In an email to selectmen, Terry Forde, president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association, objected to the timing of the hearing, when many property owners have not yet arrived for the summer. "These rate changes are extraordinary," he wrote. "It costs much less to go over the George Washington Bridge. Some municipalities have free ferry service to all comers. Jamestown, Rhode Island is an example. Why is this not true for Edgartown?"
A number of people at the hearing supported the rate increases as necessary, and others submitted email comments.
"Frankly, I think the ferry service, even at the increased rates, is a bargain at the price," wrote Mary Spencer. "He seems to be making a good faith effort to base the increase on good business practice, at the same time trying to be as fair as possible.
Chappy resident Dorothy Dropic asked selectmen to wait until they have at least a year's worth of data before making any judgment on a rate increase. She also said the residency requirements, which entitle people to deeply subsidized tickets, are too restrictive.
"If you are a legal resident for Massachusetts, you should be a legal resident for the ferry," said Ms. Dropic at Monday's hearing. People who live in the state for more than half the year are defined as residents, according to state law. Historically, the standard for a ferry discount is that residents cannot leave Chappy for more than 45 days in a year. According to Mr. Wells, currently about 140 residents qualify for subsidized rates. He has declared a moratorium on additions to the list of people who qualify for the residency discount. "I don't want one group to feel like they are paying more than another group," he said.
Mr. Wells plans to raise the subsidized rates on May 15. The rate would be 75 percent lower than the proposed regular rate. A roundtrip would be $3 for a vehicle, and $1 for passengers.
Discount ticket books for automobiles would increase on May 1, from $175 to $200, and for passengers from $125 to $135. That amounts to $8 per roundtrip for vehicles, and $2.70 for passengers.
Mr. Wells said he plans to build a new boat over the summer, using local resources and labor. He said with only two vessels, there is little time for proper maintenance, especially in the summer when both boats operate at once. He said with three boats, he will have a ferry available when a ferry must be taken out of service for repairs or maintenance.