Editorial : It's just $2 million - the Steamship Authority takes another bite
Without so much as a "Terribly sorry, we know this will only add to your troubles," the Steamship Authority members Tuesday spiked a surcharge onto passenger and vehicle fares, in order to extract another $2 million from travelers between Woods Hole/Hyannis and the two islands. This is the Steamship Authority's traditional approach to future planning.
Traffic on Steamship Authority vessels was up during the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period a year ago. But this year's increase follows nearly a decade of annual declines. Despite those declines, the SSA treasury has kept itself well fed. How is that, you ask. It's because the Steamship Authority, beset with high and growing costs, declining customer volumes and some price resistance in the marketplace - and, institutionally averse to serious strategic planning - keeps raising the rates. These fare hikes wound visitors more sharply than they do year-round Islanders, who benefit from an intricate array of discount possibilities, but still the cost of coming and going, and the cost of bringing stuff here, not to mention the cost of sending our trash away, all rises.
Despairingly, one must conclude that this must be the boatline's plan for our future.
In an OpEd column published in November of last year, a bruised Marc Hanover, the Vineyard member of the Steamship Authority took issue with a Times editorial that sharply criticized the oxymoronic notion that is Steamship Authority forward planning. In his essay, Mr. Hanover listed the boatline leadership's accomplishments and its goals, and he rejected consideration of more sweeping changes that a rigorous, independent strategic planning effort might suggest. Mr. Hanover wrote that Vineyarders do not want the kinds of revolutionary changes in their travel practices that had been proposed years earlier as antidotes to a future of high and rising costs of travel.
"In sum," the Vineyard member wrote, "the Steamship Authority is becoming more efficient, improving customer service, and holding down fares by focusing on all aspects of its operations. While few of the SSA's improvements have been sexy or controversial enough to make the newspapers, together they represent the steady incremental progress that the SSA has made - and will continue to make - in order to provide Islanders with the quality of service we want and deserve, at a price we all can afford."
Hence, this week's $2 million rate increase.
Armand Tiberio, a former Steamship Authority general manager with a broad-based background in ferry operations, was the last boatline GM to consider the challenges as well as the opportunities for the ferry business in Southeastern New England in the 21st Century. He quit the SSA in 2001. When he left, Mr. Tiberio said SSA decisions would have to be made within a regional transportation framework. He deplored the habit of Vineyarders and Nantucketers, and their appointed boatline representatives, to "stick their heads in the sand and hope that it all goes away."
Mr. Tiberio knew that throughout the 1990s a series of studies and management recommendations had attempted to address many of the pressures building on the mainland and within the boatline. But, he said, the island members simply ignored the advice and the suggestions, or retreated in the face of the criticism those suggestions inspired.
Mr. Tiberio said the issues the boatline must deal with would not disappear and needed to be dealt with sooner rather than later, and certainly not never, which is apparently the preferred path of the current boatline leadership.
"Maybe the pain isn't high enough," the departing GM said in 2001. "Maybe things have got to get worse before they get better."
And they've done just that.