SSA Vineyard Haven ramp is longer, costlier and compliant

The SSA is diverting ferries from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven. — File photo by Peter Simon

The Steamship Authority (SSA) will install a new, longer passenger ramp in its Vineyard Haven terminal. Like the ramp in Woods Hole, it will feature multiple switchbacks designed to reduce the incline for passengers embarking and debarking from ferries.

The Vineyard Haven terminal project will cost about $237,000, Wayne Lamson, Steamship Authority (SSA) general manager, has said. It is the last of the new loading structures at the SSA’s four main terminals, as part of a $1.5 million retrofit required to comply with Massachusetts’ marine ramp requirements for people with physical disabilities.

The modifications are the result of a complaint filed with the Massachusetts architectural access board in Boston in 2009. “The board investigated and looked at the slope of the ramps and determined that they did not comply,” Mr. Lamson said.

The SSA practice had been to allow passengers with disabilities or in wheelchairs to board ferries over the vehicle ramps and use an onboard elevator to reach the passenger deck. The SSA was faced either with applying to the access board for a variance or constructing compliant ramps.

The SSA did receive a variance for the gangway. “In all tide conditions and vessel loading conditions we are not in compliance,” Mr. Lamson said. “They understand that given range of tides and different conditions, we have done our best to comply.”

The work is something of a redo. New, wider ramps were installed to accommodate the Island Home in 2006.

Mr. Lamson said that at the time the SSA and its design engineers took the position that the SSA did not need to be in compliance, because it provided another path over the vehicle ramp. That position was ultimately judged incorrect, he said.

The new ramps provide a gentle incline but a longer route. Faced with a choice, disabled passengers and those in wheelchairs continue to prefer to board over the freight deck and use the elevator rather than navigate the new ramp.

“We have seen and heard that, but this is what the regulations require,” Mr. Lamson said.

Initially, the SSA was going to construct compliant and adjacent shorter, noncompliant ramps but dropped that plan because it would have taken up too much space, Mr. Lamson said.

Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, the Vineyard’s appointed SSA member, said the expensive retrofit was required by the state when it became clear that a variance could not be obtained. Although the new ramps are intended to provide the required incline they will still be subject to natural forces.

“When the whole thing is done and we have spent a quarter million dollars per port in aluminum we still had to get a variance from the state,” Mr. Hanover said, “because the boats go up and down with the tide and with the weight of the boats.”

Mr. Hanover said the SSA previously allowed disabled people to board over the ramp and use the elevator. He said the new ramps, given the length and switchbacks need to achieve the proper inclines, are not necessarily an improvement but do meet the legal requirements.

“I’m sure we will still help people who would just as soon go over the main deck and take the elevator, which makes far more sense,” he said. “If I were in that situation that would certainly be my choice.”

In previous comments, Steven Sayre, SSA general counsel, explained that the earlier ramps were steeper than allowed and lacked the appropriate handrails. He said it is not appropriate to tell people who may be disabled and may want to board the vessel with the rest of the traveling public to board through the freight deck.

Mr. Sayre said the SSA worked closely with the architectural board and representatives of disability organizations in all the port communities to come up with a new ramp design and employee guidelines and policies for accommodating people with disabilities.