Op-Ed: SSA chief says islands’ cost of living a guide to boatline...

Op-Ed: SSA chief says islands’ cost of living a guide to boatline decisions

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I would like to thank Harvey J. Kennedy Jr. for his Letter to the Editor [SSA and the cost of living] that appeared in the November 8 edition of The Martha’s Vineyard Times, as it made me realize that the SSA needs to better inform the public about our vessel manning requirements. Mr. Kennedy believes that the SSA mans its vessels at twice the levels required by the Coast Guard, and he suggested that, instead of raising fares next year, we reduce our vessel crews by 25 percent, in order to eliminate our deficit.

The reality is that SSA does not man any of its vessels at twice the levels required by the Coast Guard, although I understand why it might seem like our vessels might have extra crew members when so many are visible while customers are driving their cars onto and off of the ferries. But our manning levels are not just for when our boats are tied up at the dock, but also when they are underway with a full load of passengers and vehicles in adverse weather conditions. The Coast Guard’s minimum manning levels are established to ensure that there are a sufficient number of licensed officers and crewmembers on board for the vessels’ safe operation after consideration of all factors involved, including emergency situations.

For the M/V Martha’s Vineyard, for example, the Coast Guard has determined that, in addition to the Master and the Pilot/Mate, the minimum crew must consist of four Able Seamen, two Ordinary Seamen, a Chief Engineer and an Oiler. The SSA historically has assigned two more Able Seamen, one as a Purser and the other as a Boatswain, to act as customer service representatives, collect tickets and supervise the loading and unloading of customers’ vehicles.

These additional crewmembers are the result of decisions made by the SSA over the years about the level of customer service we provide to our passengers. In the past, they also have been required by our union contracts, which for decades have contained minimum manning scales above and beyond what the Coast Guard has required.

Earlier this year, the most recent union contract containing those minimum manning scales expired. As a result, the SSA is now free to determine on its own what the manning levels should be on its boats, subject to Coast Guard requirements and certain bargaining obligations with the union. While Mr. Kennedy’s suggestion that we cut the number of crewmembers by 25 percent is unrealistically drastic, we agree with him generally that the SSA’s manning levels must be carefully examined and in some cases changed in order to relieve the constant economic pressures faced by Island residents.

This change in culture is already underway. This past summer, the SSA decided not to assign any Chief Cooks, additional engine room personnel or additional Ordinary Seamen to the M/V Martha’s Vineyard (or any of our three other large passenger ferries), even though those positions would have been required under the minimum manning scales in the expired union contract. The union that represents our unlicensed vessel employees has filed a charge against the SSA with the state Department of Labor Relations about those manning changes, but regardless of the outcome of those proceedings we remain committed to being vigilant and prudent in our efforts to continually address manning issues without jeopardizing safety.

Finally, we are very aware of the high cost of living on the Islands and the effect our fares have on people’s daily lives, especially during these difficult economic times. The fare increases we are implementing for 2013 are projected to increase revenues on the Martha’s Vineyard route by only one percent. Even with these fare increases, in the five years since 2008 our fares on this route will have increased by less than one percent per year for Island residents traveling on excursion rates and not at all for freight trucks delivering the necessities of life. We are proud that we have avoided larger fare increases by implementing a number of operational efficiencies over the years (including our limited manning reductions this past summer) that have offset rising health care costs and other expenses. At the same time, however, we recognize and embrace the challenge of always finding more ways to ensure that the Islands have a safe, convenient, efficient, and economical lifeline to the mainland.

Wayne Lamson is the general manager of the Steamship Authority.

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