Next month, Steamship Authority (SSA) managers will recommend a replacement for the ferry Governor. Three options are on the table to replace the aging freight vessel. Each carries a price tag that will put pressure on the fare box.
The authority members reviewed the options at their monthly business meeting on July 23, held in Oak Bluffs. The choices include a “super-size” freight boat, a new passenger/vehicle ferry similar in size to the Martha’s Vineyard, and an even larger ferry of the same type as the Island Home.
Calculations based on 2012 schedules show the gap between the annual estimated cost to operate each boat and estimated operating revenues, or the forecast net loss, at between $2.25 million and $3.8 million.
That difference between operating costs and revenue would be offset by a combination of revenue generated by an increase in traffic volume, greater efficiencies, and a hike in fares, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said.
“No matter what scenario we are looking at, this isn’t going to be something where a new vessel pays for itself,” Mr. Lamson said in a conversation with The Times Wednesday. “We are talking about the incremental cost versus the incremental revenue because the size of the vessel will be only slightly larger than the Governor.”
Mr. Lamson said the vessel needs to be upgraded and replaced. Those costs cannot simply be absorbed by adding larger vessels, he said.
Seen in the context of maintaining the entire boatline fleet, replacing the Governor, built in Oakland, California, in 1954 and obtained by the boatline as surplus federal government property, is a priority, Mr. Lamson said.
Mr. Lamson said the vessel’s draft makes it unsuitable for Hyannis Harbor on the Nantucket route, and its open deck and low sides create problems in rough weather.
“It’s the only vessel that we can’t use on a yearly basis,” he said. “In bad weather, it’s the first vessel to tie up. In the summer it’s fine: it carries a lot of cars and does a nice job, but the other times of the year it becomes problematic.”
The new vessel would be added to a fleet of freight boats that now includes the Katama, Sankaty, and Gay Head. “What we’re looking at is kind of a super freight vessel which would be the freight deck of the Martha’s Vineyard, that size, with a little more passenger capacity,” Mr. Lamson said.
The larger deck would enable the boatline to carry more trucks earlier in the day and free up vehicle spaces, now used for trucks, on later vessels during the week. “On weekends when we don’t have a lot of demand for truck reservations,” Mr. Lamson said, “we want to be able to use it to transport automobiles back and forth and have more reasonable passenger amenities than what we currently have on the freight boats.”
A chart prepared by SSA treasurer Bob Davis for the July meeting compares each option and rates the various advantages and disadvantages of the three choices.
Vehicle spaces are measured in car equivalent units (CEUs). A new single-ended freight boat would carry 50 CEUs, as would a new Martha’s Vineyard class vessel. An Island Home type ferry would have an additional capacity of 10 CEUs, plus 16 on the lift decks.
The major difference would be in passenger capacity. The freight boat would carry 400 passengers versus 800 and 1,200.
The cost to construct the new vessel would be $30 million for a new freight boat, $35 million for a Martha’s Vineyard class vessel and $52 million for a new Island Home type.
A ferry history
In the 1990s, Steamship Authority fast ferry service –— employing fast freight vessels of the type used in the offshore oil industry — to New Bedford was envisioned as an essential piece in a larger SSA transportation model by former SSA general manager Armand Tiberio, who said the new service would divert automobiles and trucks from Woods Hole.
In the late 1990s, proposals for service between Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford were a political flashpoint that resulted in a brief trial freight link to the port city and touched off a legislative battle that ended with the expansion of the SSA to include a voting New Bedford member.
Mr. Lamson said management recently looked at the costs of freight service to New Bedford and concluded it would add to operating costs and reduce flexibility.
“It would operate at a loss so that it too would have to be subsidized,” he said. “We would lose the spare vessel that we currently have, and we could not transfer one of the current freight boats from Woods Hole where we are running seven round-trips a day now between Woods Hole and the Vineyard. During that same operating day we could only run three trips from New Bedford.”
Mr. Lamson said the new vessel will be faster than the current freight vessels, 16 knots versus 11 or 12. The notion of fast freight boats of the type Mr. Tiberio once imagined is not something the veteran SSA employee is ready to embrace.
“I think you trade off reliability,” Mr. Lamson said. “In theory it sounds good, but I think we need reliability.”
Fuel costs and maintenance are also considerations, he said.
Asked what the deciding factor will be in choosing a new vessel, Mr. Lamson said, “What we can afford.”