Updated 7:30 pm
The voices were loud, they were forceful, and they were nearly unanimous that the Steamship Authority is broken and needs an outside review to help right the ship.
At a two-hour, hastily called meeting at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School auditorium, the SSA’s board heard from a steady stream of Island leaders, business owners and citizens asking the full board to support Marc Hanover, the Island’s representative, in his call for an independent review.
“We need action and accountability,” Josh Goldstein said speaking on behalf of the Mansion House Inn in Vineyard Haven. Business owners like Goldstein are worried the constant barrage of bad press is going to hurt tourism. “It’s not a pleasure cruise, it’s our lifeline.”
Steamship ferries have missed 549 runs in the first four months of 2018 as a result of mechanical breakdowns, a staggering number compared to the 26 for all of 2017.
Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to support Hanover, a complete turnaround from a meeting last month when the board decided to give SSA general manager Robert Davis a month to come up with a plan of his own.
“I think we’re recognizing we need outside help for the entire structure,” general counsel Steven Sayers said, noting that a complete outside review could cost as much as $1.5 million.
March was a particularly bad month for the Steamship Authority with a combination of mechanical breakdowns and weather-related cancellations caused by four nor’easters. The last straw for most people was the May 5 breakdown of the MV Martha’s Vineyard as it backed out of a slip in Woods Hole. Because the MV Katama was already taking up a slip, there was no place for two working ferries to unload or pick up passengers setting off a three-to-four hour delay on a busy Saturday night.
At the start of the meeting, Davis issued an apology to the large crowd saying he was embarrassed by the ferry line’s performance. “I’m the general manager, I’m responsible for making sure the services that you depend upon — the Island residents, the local merchants, the commuters, the shippers and Island visitors come to rely on every day,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to be in this position where we were not able to do that during March and April. We’re working on remedies to make sure that for the summer time, in the fall, and moving forward, that the service is once again reliable and we rebuild your trust in the authority.”
MacAleer Schilcher of Tisbury was frank in his calling out the board saying there needs to be more transparency. “You guys should be scared. All of you,” he said. “I’m not threatening you.”
John Freeman of Oak Bluffs struck a more humorous tone. “I’m sure you were expecting pitchforks and torches, but they made us check them in the lobby,” he said.
Some speakers called out the type of ferries being used by the SSA saying the high-profile ferries like the Island Home and Woods Hole have to cancel too often in foul weather, others like a Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate called for more redundancy in the systems.
There were personal tales of being left behind by the buses at the Palmer Avenue lot, getting stranded with the need to pay for hotel rooms, and missing doctors’ appointments off-Island — all with the point of making it clear just what a lifeline the ferry service is for Island residents.
“You have a moral obligation to be the lifeline that you claim to be,” Sean Debettencourt said.
There were, of course, several calls for a fast ferry to be added to the Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole route after a successful run by the SeaStreak as an emergency fill-in.
“What truly concerns me is that I just don’t get the feeling you’re in touch with your customers or the public,” Fred Condon of Edgartown told the board.
Once again communication — and the lack of it — was a focal point. SSA is in the process of hiring a communications director, but one speaker called some of the information put out in text alerts and on the SSA’s website “baloney.”
Adam Darack, who works for the Town of Edgartown and handles some of that town’s alerts, said the Steamship Authority shouldn’t shy away from telling customers bad news as soon as possible. “Don’t be nervous,” he said. “Just let us know. It will save us time going to ferries. It will save us planning.”
Paulette Silva-Souza, who is from Vineyard Haven and now lives in West Yarmouth, was nearly moved to tears as she spoke on behalf of hundreds of commuters who signed a petition. Many of them expressed concern with finding out about cancellations too late, she said.
Silva-Souza was among many speakers who praised the rank and file workers of the Steamship Authority for their dedication in the face of adversity.
“When I was a kid at West Tisbury School and later a student here at the high school, our field trips were rarely canceled due to the weather,” Goldstein said. “We knew that the Islander, her crew, and Bridget would get us home.”
He was referring to Bridget Tobin, a terminal manager for the SSA, who got several positive mentions throughout the evening.
Dozens of public officials were in the audience. Some spoke, others let the letters from their boards speak for them.
Oak Bluffs selectman Brian Packish questioned the idea of moving freight and trash to New Bedford, something he said would drive up costs for Island residents. “Look out at this crowd. Freight is the food for their families, freight is the medicine to care for their families, freight is the oil we heat our houses with,” Packish said. “Freight is our lifeline.”
The meeting, which was originally scheduled for Nantucket, was pushed for by Hanover and spurred on by a social media drive captained by restaurant owner J.B. Blau and the group Save Our Steamship Authority (SOSA).
Blau got a shoutout a couple of times during the public comment period. “We made you come here,” Schilcher said.