The Steamship Authority board convened at the Nantucket Whaling Museum Tuesday for its monthly meeting, and voted in a new management position, heard updates on the independent consultant’s progress, and learned rate hikes were slated for next season.
The rate hikes are to designed to push the ferry service’s books securely into the black, because currently the monetary cushion on the books is so slim, any unanticipated event could create a deficit, according to Steamship treasurer and comptroller Gerald Murphy. Murphy told the board the Vineyard vehicle passage, freight, and summer parking rates would be used to plump up the cushion.
“We’re looking to generate about $7 million,” he said.
Regular auto on-season rates will increase $11.15, he said. “For on-season excursion rates, we’re looking at a $3 increase each way, so a $6 round-trip increase.”
The last increase for regular auto rates was January 2013, he said. For excursion rates, the last increase was January 2015.
“For trucks, for freight, we’re suggesting an increase of 12.5 percent for over-20 [-foot] trucks,” he said. The last time freight rates were bumped up was January 2014, he said.
Murphy also said parking in Falmouth would be increased Saturdays and Sundays during the summer months by $5.
No fare increases are proposed for walk-on passengers.
The board also unanimously resurrected the 10-ride pass system. One change is the sum total will now include embarkation fees. At their previous meeting, the board learned the ferry line could potentially find itself in jeopardy with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue because of its lack of embarkation fee collection. Several members of the board expressed dismay on behalf of their constituents on the loss of the popular pass. General manager Robert Davis and his staff were concerned tourists were exploiting the pass, which is meant for commuters. However, recent calculations showed the number of people who could be burdening the system via the passes was insufficient to undermine the Steamship Authority’s budget, he said.
Davis informed the board the independent consultant review underway by HMS Consulting, Vigor Analytics, and Gloston Consulting, while covering all aspects of Steamship Authority operations, has focused on four particular incidents.
“The incidents that the consultants are focusing on are first the soft grounding of the MV Woods Hole back in March,” Davis said. “Secondly, the failed generator on the Martha’s Vineyard back in March. The May 5th incident with the vessel Martha’s Vineyard where the vessel lost power leaving the dock in Woods Hole. And the fourth item that they’re looking at is the delay in the MV Island Home coming back into service from its repairs.”
Davis told the board the three firms should have a report on these incidents in early November. He highlighted a particular finding the consultants have made thus far — the grounding of the Woods Hole was not the fault of the Steamship Authority, but the result of mechanical failure.
Davis told The Times after the open-session portion of Tuesday’s meeting adjourned that the circumstances that day were beyond the control of Steamship Authority personnel, per the consultants’ analysis. He cited pin failures in valves in the propulsion system of the ferry as causal, and noted because the failure happened beyond the warranty threshold, the manufacturer was not bound to cover the costs. He added, however, the manufacturer, the Danish firm Hundested, had been very accommodating.
During the meeting, the Vineyard’s representative to the board, Marc Hanover, asked if the report is received in November whether recommendations can be implemented prior to the start of the 2019 season. Davis did not answer directly. He suggested anything he said would be “speculation,” and that information about the consultants’ recommendations could be gleaned sometime in October before the report is submitted. Barnstable board member Robert Jones advocated for applying pressure for an early report from the consultants. Davis said they are “spending quite a bit of time on the report,” and the submission date is not far off.
The board unanimously approved the creation of an operations and communications center manager position, at position rate 11. Steamship Authority spokesman Sean Driscoll later said the range for rate 11 is $64,400 to $96,000 per year.
The operations center itself remains on the drawing board, and is expected to be installed in the Steamship Authority offices in Falmouth.
“The function of the operations and communications center would be to assume the function of the fleet personnel office,” Davis said, “to monitor vessel activities and ensure that delays, diversions, and cancellations are posted in a timely manner for the public, as well as the Steamship staff, to monitor vehicular traffic around the terminals, as well as traffic delays and road closures, and to update the public and staff as appropriate.” Davis also said the center would monitor Peter Pan bus service to Woods Hole, and keep the public informed about the ferry line’s parking lots. In the future, the center will monitor social media channels and dispatch and maintenance personnel, and the logging of vessel on-time performance.
Davis said the center would be staffed “seven days a week, and would be open during the hours that the ferry’s vessels are operating.”
Jones described the new center and manager as a “huge undertaking.” “I’m totally in favor of doing it. I just don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he said. “I’m going to have to take my hat off if you can do this efficiently, because it just seems like it has numerous tentacles.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” Falmouth board member Elizabeth Gladfelter said.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” Hanover said. He added that when he last reviewed Washington State Ferries, they were able to hold down the position of operations and communications manager with one person. He noted they are a much larger ferry service, too.
A spokesman for Washington State Ferries confirmed this with The Times. “We currently have six full-time employees that staff our operations center,” Justin Fujioka wrote in an email to The Times. “Usually just one of them staffs the center at a time; we occasionally have two. Their official title is Marine Operations Watch Supervisor, and they each make $43.02/hour and are overtime-eligible. One of the six is considered to be a ‘relief, and we are actively looking for another ‘relief’ as we are short-staffed. Five of them work four 10-hour shifts a week, and one works five eight-hour shifts a week.”
Davis said he envisioned three people covering the operations center.
The board held an executive session Tuesday to discuss “potential litigation,” according to the agenda. That litigation pertains to “Senesco Marine LLC … Contract No. 15-2016, “Mid-Life Overhaul Services of the MV Marth’s Vineyard.” SSA spent more than $18 million on refurbishment of the ferry, which suffered multiple mechanical breakdowns in the spring.