SSA members agree to shift lease on airport acres to county

Robert Marshall of Falmouth is the current chairman of the Steamship Authority.
File photo by Ralph Stewart

Robert Marshall of Falmouth is the current chairman of the Steamship Authority.

Steamship Authority (SSA) members agreed Tuesday to negotiate the transfer of a 20-year lease the boatline has had since 1999 on four acres in the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Business Park to Dukes County. John Alley of West Tisbury, a county commissioner and airport commissioner, appeared at the members’ meeting in the Oak Bluffs Library to make the formal request for the deal.

Since leasing the land, at a time when the boatline was contemplating the development of what it described as an inter-modal transportation system, the SSA has discarded that idea and done nothing with the property. The annual lease cost is about $29,000.

A deal is in the works for the authority to lease space for its Vineyard reservations office in the Martha’s Vineyard Airport terminal. The airport commission will be the landlord. The SSA’s current landlord announced that it will terminate the SSA’s lease for the present reservation office in January 2012. The SSA reported in September that it had received many letters urging it to continue the walk-in service on-Island, rather than consolidating these functions at the VineyardHaven and/or Oak Bluffs terminals. The new lease expense will be about $2,000 a month.

Authority chairman Robert Marshall of Falmouth questioned the boatline’s general manager about the current costs of the reservation office service. They total about $370,000 a year, of which about $340,000 is for personnel costs. If the Vineyard office were discontinued, some costs would shift to the Mashpee reservations headquarters, but about $200,000 might be saved.

Mr. Marshall, speaking to those who, he said, might criticize SSA spending decisions, described the decision to keep rather than discard the service as “a non-revenue producing accommodation.”

Members approved early summer (starts May 21, 2012), summer (June 20, 2012), and late summer (September 6, 2012) schedules for ferry service, including 5:30 am departures from Woods Hole for Vineyard Haven, a half-hour earlier than has been the case, and departures from Vineyard Haven will begin at 6 am. These changes make possible the elimination of the 9:50 pm trip from Woods Hole and the return from Vineyard Haven at 10:50 pm.

The members asked that management communicate with truckers who predominate on the early morning trips to be as quiet as possible on the Woods Hole Road and in Vineyard Haven in advance of these trips.

Despite compliments from Oak Bluffs selectman Mike Santoro on the beauty and efficiency of the reconstructed SSA terminal in his town, his request for expanded seasonal service and more discriminating decision-making on weather cancellations of Oak Bluffs service met firm resistance. Mr. Lamson agreed to further discuss Oak Bluffs’ requests, but the general manager said economics — that is, the cost of operating the Oak Bluffs terminal — dictated the terminal’s annual startup date. And, he said, often, even when weather doesn’t look bad, sea conditions at the wharf, including swells and surges, make it unsafe to conduct operations in Oak Bluffs.

In genial terms, Jeff Kristal, the Tisbury selectman, countered Mr. Santoro’s request, explaining to the SSA members that scheduling the Oak Bluffs startup as the boatline plans is fine with Tisbury. And, as to weather-related cancellations of Oak Bluffs service, which results in all trips running into and out of Vineyard Haven, Mr. Kristal said it’s just fine from his town’s point of view, and he and his colleagues will do everything they can to help accommodate the flood of traffic.

Cheerfully, Mr. Marshall said that the last thing he and the other members want is to get in the middle of a “civil war” between the two towns.

Money

Through August, the boatline reported that it has carried 2.4 percent fewer passengers to and from both Islands than it did over the same period a year ago; 1.2 percent fewer autos; and 1.2 percent fewer trucks (freight).

Although net operating income, as budgeted for August, was off $560,469 from last year, — perhaps because of the threat of Hurricane Irene — the net for the first eight months of the year is up $1.1 million compared with the budget, largely because operating expenses versus the budget fell about $2 million.

The members adopted a 2012 budget that calls for operating revenue of $84.4 million compared with $83 million anticipated this year. Operating expenses are expected to rise to $79.8 million in 2012, compared with $76 million expected this year. And net operating revenue will decline to $4.6 million from $6.6 million in 2011.

Total cost of service is allocated 55.9 percent to the Vineyard routes and 44.1 percent to Nantucket.

The members agreed to contract for several repair and upgrade projects, including a $6 million bond issue to upgrade the Eagle, a vessel used primarily on Nantucket routes. The boatline now has about $57 million of bonds outstanding. Its bonded debt authorization is $75 million. Management estimates that after the new bond issue, debt service will be between $7.5 and $7.6 million annually for the next nine years.