The Steamship Authority met Tuesday on Martha’s Vineyard and acknowledged what many residents and visitors to the Island already knew. The fall schedule, which went into effect the day after Columbus Day, was not adequate to meet demand, resulting in a shortage of available reservations, long standby-line waits, and angry, frustrated travelers.
SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said, “I want the board and I want the public to know that we realize that we got stuck last week and didn’t expect that.”
Also Tuesday, meeting in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, the authority members agreed with a recommendation from an internal boatline search committee that SSA treasurer Robert Davis has all the qualifications to be considered for the job of general manager. Longtime general manager Wayne Lamson will retire this spring. The members will interview Mr. Davis at a special meeting before deciding whether to conduct an external search. However, Tuesday it appeared that Mr. Davis has the support to succeed Mr. Lamson, who rose through the ranks of the SSA, and formerly held the job of treasurer.
“After we went to our fall schedule last Wednesday, the staff realized immediately that we needed to revisit the approved schedules for next year on both routes, not only here on the Vineyard, but on Nantucket as well, because we clearly are not meeting the demand for service during these transitional times when we move from the summer schedule to the fall schedule,” Mr. Lamson said.
He stated that much of the demand is in the morning, and he would ask the staff to revisit the approved fall schedule. The goal, he said was to meet demand for a couple of weeks after Columbus Day weekend, which includes the Bass and Bluefish Derby.
“I know Tuesday and Wednesday were nuts,” Marc Hanover, Vineyard SSA member, said. “Did it continue through the rest of the week?”
Mr. Lamson only nodded.
Mike Carroll, patriarch of Carroll’s Trucking in Vineyard Haven and a man intimately familiar with SSA operations, took the opportunity to commend the SSA terminal employees. “Last Wednesday, all day and up until the last trip — and I’ve been around for a few 24 hours — I think was the craziest, busiest day of the year so far. So many people, so many cars, so many people trying to get off — people yelling and screaming — kids crying — and I just want to compliment [terminal agent] Dave Merritt and his crew. They kept their heads. They were very polite to the public from what I could see, and did everything possible to please people.”
In response to recent comments and Letters to the Editor from Islanders pressing the SSA to help alleviate summer traffic, Mr. Lamson said there may have been some misunderstanding about when the SSA adds extra boats as opposed to unscheduled trips.
“The only time we do add a vessel to this four-vessel schedule,” he said, “is the third weekend in August, when people are trying to leave the Island.”
He said the “big exodus” used to be Labor Day, but is now that weekend.
On the topic of advertising, Mr. Hanover said it was directed at passengers visiting in the summer months when the boatline faces competition from other carriers. That revenue helps pay for service in the lean winter months, he said.
“The Steamship Authority meets the demand, it does not create the demand,” Mr. Hanover said. He said homeowners and travelers who want to travel to the Vineyard have a right to come here.
On the topic of traffic, Mr. Hanover took the opportunity to say that according to the numbers, much of the increase in vehicle traffic was attributable to Islanders. “The Steamship Authority is not a toll booth,” he said. “It’s not a way to enforce zoning.”
Mr. Hanover said he hears from people pressing the SSA not to bring so many cars to the Island, then gets a call from someone angry because he or she cannot make a reservation. “It’s a dilemma at best,” he said.
With little discussion, the members approved the proposed 2017 operating budget of $95,185,000, an increase of $2,908,000, or 3.2 percent over the current estimate for 2016. According to a management report, budget hikes include the following: Payroll expense is expected to increase by $1,193,000 (3.7 percent); pension expense is expected to increase by $607,000 (8.2 percent); health care costs are expected to increase by $808,000 (10.8 percent); payroll taxes are expected to increase by $74,000 (3.2 percent); vessel fuel oil is expected to increase by $1,156,000 (21.5 percent); vessel maintenance is expected to decrease by $434,000 (4.8 percent); terminal repairs are expected to decrease by $969,000 (36.0 percent); and telephone expenses are expected to increase by $217,000 (31.1 percent), as the SSA will be making data communication upgrades.
The SSA’s operating revenues next year are projected to be $104,404,000, representing a $1,375,000 (1.3 percent) increase from the current estimate for 2016. Based upon the staff’s estimates of revenues and expenses for 2017, the SSA’s net operating income is expected to be around $8,287,000. By comparison, its bond interest and principal requirements will be around $8,634,000 next year.
The board also approved the staff’s proposed 2017 capital budget and approved new projects totaling $4,217,000. These include shuttle bus replacements for the Woods Hole and Hyannis terminal operations ($300,0000), and passenger ticketing and access control systems ($750,000).
In other business
The SSA will close its reservation office at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport by the end of October, and beginning Nov. 1 the reservation call center will be located on the second floor of the Vineyard Haven terminal. Customers will continue to be able to make reservations at the ticket counter on the first floor of that terminal, and SSA managers agreed to consider opening the Oak Bluffs terminal earlier in the morning so that customers will also be able to make reservations before the first ferry arrives.
The SSA modified its agreement with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), which now provides for a 20 percent discount on the cost of noncommercial vehicle and passenger travel for tribal members. The SSA agreed to increase the discount to 40 percent because tribal members had used only a fraction ($9,119.50 through Sept. 30) of the $200,000 paid to the SSA through the federal Tribal Transportation Program (TTP).