At Large: Clumsy and costly

At Large: Clumsy and costly

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There is no apparent link between the Steamship Authority’s demand that Ralph Packer’s Tisbury Towing get a license to transport freight to and from Martha’s Vineyard with its tugs and barges and the boatline’s demand that the Coastwise Packet schooner Shenandoah’s mooring be moved 150 feet (or one boat length) to the southeast from its current (and 44-year) location, to make more room for SSA ferries to come and go from the south slip at the Vineyard Haven wharf.

But, despite the absence of an obvious connection, there are indeed several.

For instance, due diligence, or how boatline members relate to their managers.

In his remarks to the Tisbury selectmen on January 13, Marc Hanover, Martha’s Vineyard member of the authority, explained that the boatline’s position regarding Shenandoah’s mooring location arose from safety considerations. Shifting Shenandoah has been a multi-year, even multi-decade pursuit on the part of the Steamship Authority, something like a Grail quest. Mr. Hanover told the selectmen that some boatline captains think the proximity of Shenandoah’s stern (when the wind is southeast and strong) to the southern side of the harbor channel presents a safety hazard. He also said that other captains said the schooner’s location is no problem at all. He said that the boatline ferries could certainly use the north slip rather than the southern one, if the captains chose, when the weather is southeast. That would neuter the safety concern, if there is one. Indeed the ferries have used that northerly slip recently, even though Shenandoah has not been on her mooring since fall. Mr. Hanover said that the boatline would be content with a shift in the Shenandoah’s location of about a third of the150 feet it has demanded and would use the north slip as necessary, but he expressed surprise when he learned that the Steamship Authority managers, in a meeting with the schooner’s owners and the Army Corps of Engineers, which will decide whether Shenandoah must move, had indicated no flexibility in their demand. “Somebody’s lying to me,” Mr. Hanover told the Tisbury selectmen.

Also, on January 13, Capt. Robert S. Douglas, Sheandoah’s master and owner, asked that the Steamship Authority produce evidence that the safety question it raises is justified, and that there is a reason why the north slip may not be used. He’d like to see that evidence, before he is required to shift his vessel from where she’s been for nearly half a century. The Tisbury harbormaster has asked for the same information, to prepare his recommendation on the mooring issue to the Corps. Besides a letter from SSA general manager Wayne Lamson to the Corps, asking that the sailing vessel’s mooring be moved, for considerations of safety and Steamship Authority convenience, there has been no evidence proffered.

Asked why he does not air this matter with his fellow members, Mr. Hanover told the selectmen he does not do so because the boatline works well if such matters are left to the discretion of professionals in management, especially matters of safety. But, consider a parallel circumstance. Should the board members of the banks and investment companies that bought all those billions of toxic assets that are now crippling their companies have been more aggressive, more inquisitive, more assertive, and more skeptical when the professional managers said they had done the financial risk modeling just right and that they had the financial safety issue handled. Due diligence requires that board members in private and public organizations subject the professional actions of their managers to intensive, continual, sophisticated, as well as common sense scrutiny before deciding that the planned actions make sense for the business as a whole, and for its customers. (Ditto, the Tisbury Towing licensing conflict.)

Then there’s the lip service approach to its mission, genuflecting to the words but not appreciating their implications. As the Tisbury selectmen have said, and repeated on January 13 to Mr. Hanover, Shenandoah is an important fixture in Vineyard Haven Harbor. They don’t want her moved, or at least not out of the general area where she has been moored for so many years. If there were a record of collisions or near misses, or repeated cancellation of ferry trips because Shenandoah had interfered with the safe passage of the ferries and because the north slip were unavailable, the selectmen would doubtless have another view. But, there is no such record. Oh, well, there was the time the Islander clobbered Shenandoah on a foggy fall day, when the wind was in the north. But never mind that. The Steamship Authority’s charter may be to serve the islands, but in the face of an issue where the clear interest of its major Island port community is in the way of a boatline demand, hang the mission. (And, once again, ditto, the Tisbury Towing conflict.)

Finally, there’s knowing what’s important. The many private carriers, all of which the boatline has licensed and allowed to expand over the years, have been meaningful competitors, in the sense that they carry passengers during the season when there is generally a surplus of passengers. (By the way, none of them is an island-based business, as Coastwise Packet Company and Tisbury Towing are. Ah, yes, and remember that the Steamship Authority’s mission is to serve the islands.) In other words, the boatline has regularly granted license permission to private carriers that have skimmed the cream – namely walk-on passengers that are the least expensive to transport and most numerous. But, now they would bring to heel a vital Vineyard Haven service business, Tisbury Towing, whose chief interaction with the Steamship Authority is to relieve it of bulky, difficult, and expensive sorts of freight which, without Mr. Packer’s service, the authority would need to make extraordinary and costly efforts to accommodate.

Oh, and we read that the Steamship Authority has agreed to accept a reduction of $160,000 in fees from its licensee HyLine, the Hyannis-based private competitor, so that HyLine’s Nantucket service may be continued although passenger traffic volumes are falling. One supposes that by refusing to allow Tisbury Towing, a kind of ally, the revenue it received from transporting fleets of rental cars to and from Martha’s Vineyard on its barges, the Steamship Authority will offset the $160,000 it forsakes from HyLine, a true and damaging competitor.

Were the Steamship Authority in business for real, it would regard its unfounded pestering of Captain Douglas as damaging to customer relations, its pursuit of Tisbury Towing as counter to its own operational interests, and HyLine’s inability to fulfill its commitment to its Nantucket passengers as an opportunity to increase lucrative market share. It would make decisions very different from those clumsy and costly ones it has made.