SSA proposes rate hikes, schedule shifts for 2006
Photo by Susan Safford
Steamship Authority (SSA) management last week asked boatline members to hike fares across the board and shift some scheduled boats to Oak Bluffs in 2006. The management recommendations are designed to cover an estimated $4 million revenue shortfall in next year's $72.1 million operating budget and alleviate traffic congestion complaints in Tisbury.
The recommendations were presented to board members, along with a draft of the 2006 operating budget, at the SSA September monthly meeting held in Hyannis. The board members are scheduled to vote on the budget and set the 2006 summer and fall schedules when they meet next on October 20 at 9:30 am at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven.
[Click here for a copy of the proposed schedules and click here for a copy of the proposed rate hikes for Martha's Vineyard]
Under a formula agreed to by the SSA members several years ago, rates are based on the cost of service for each route and what is needed to cover any shortfall.
The fare increases, which would fall most heavily on the Vineyard side of the ledger to the tune of $3,185,000 of the $4 million needed, come against the backdrop of a dramatic hike in the boatline's cost of fuel, rising insurance rates, and declining ridership on Authority boats.
If approved, the cost of a one-way adult passenger ticket would rise from $5.50 to $6. The ferry embarkation fee would add an additional 50 cents, bringing the cost of a round trip ticket to $13.
The embarkation fee legislation, which was sponsored by Rep. Eric Turkington of Falmouth and Sen. Robert O'Leary of Barnstable and approved as part of a statewide municipal relief package, placed a 50-cent fee on the price of each one-way ferry trip to be paid to the town where the trip originates. Islanders are exempt from the fee if they buy tickets by the discount book, use excursion fares, or travel with sports teams.
Nantucketers would see their conventional ferry one-way adult fare increase from $13.50 to $14.
One way auto rates would increase by $6 across the board from $57 to $63 in season, and $35 to $39 off season, for vehicles under 17 feet; rates for vehicles over that length would rise from $67 to $73 (in season), and $45 to $49 (off season).
The $126 it will cost visitors to bring a vehicle under 17 feet to and from the Vineyard in season would still be a bargain compared to Nantucket where the cost would rise to $360.
The in-season period would also be stretched to include the month of April, a change that would not apply to excursion fares, which would bump up to the in-season level between May 14 and Sept. 14.
Discounted round-trip auto excursion rates for Island residents would jump by $5. Off-Island shopping trips would cost $44 off season and $70 in season, for vehicles less than 17 feet, and $64 and $90 for those over that length.
One bonus would be the elimination of an extra charge for vehicles over 6 feet, 6 inches in height.
The commercial vehicle rate for vehicles 20 feet and over would increase by eight percent.
This week, Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard member and SSA board chairman, said he is reviewing management's fare recommendations in anticipation of next month's vote. He said rate hikes were unavoidable, particularly in the face of a rise in the cost of fuel, and would have occurred sooner had it not been for the efforts of management to trim costs.
In his management report presented at last week's meeting, Bob Davis, SSA treasurer, said the authority's operating expenses in 2006 are expected to rise by 5.4 percent.
He reported that vessel operation expenses were expected to increase 6 percent, despite a decrease in crew wages as a result of negotiated manning reductions.
"Vessel fuel oil is projected to increase 49 percent over the current year's estimate," he wrote. "We have assumed for budget purposes that crude oil prices will remain at a $62.50 barrel price during 2006."
During a discussion of the proposed rates Bob Marshall, Falmouth SSA member, asked management to provide a detailed breakdown of costs for each user group. Mr. Marshall said the information would be useful when it came time to set fares. Mr. Marshall said he wanted to be sure that one sector was not subsidizing another.
As the discussion turned to generating revenue, Mr. Davis raised the notion of premium pricing as a means of generating added revenue. Under that system, riders would pay extra for preferred time slots.
David Oliveira, New Bedford member, said it was time to look at merchandising SSA goods, an idea that began with former Nantucket member Grace Grossman but never advanced very far.
Mr. Lamson reported on recent union contracts that now include a provision under which employees would begin to contribute five percent to the cost of their health coverage. But while that is expected to save approximately $400,000, insurance costs are also expected to increase by the same amount.
In response to the discussion and requests for more information from the members, Mr. Lamson recommended the board meet for a working budget session prior to next month's meeting.
During a presentation on the proposed schedules, management said the intent was to lessen traffic congestion by spreading out the arrivals of freight and passenger vessels and shifting some vessels from Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs.
Management is also proposing to have boats and crews available to run but not place the trips on the schedule. That would provide the option to run or not run a boat depending on the circumstances.
Under management option two, the proposal favored by Mr. Hanover, between May 17 and October 10 the 11 am, 6:30 pm, and 7:30 pm boats from Woods Hole would arrive in Oak Bluffs, in addition to the already scheduled boats to Oak Bluffs. Additional departures from Oak Bluffs would be the 12:15 pm, 7:30 pm, and 8:30 pm boats.
The proposed schedule includes the option to run an unscheduled 10 pm freight boat from Woods Hole and an 11 pm freight vessel from Vineyard Haven on reservation only days when needed.
The 9:30 pm boat from Woods Hole would be moved back to 9:45 pm to accommodate passengers arriving on the Peter Pan/Bonanza bus line. That boat would run daily during the off-season instead of only on weekends and holidays.
The 10:30 pm boat from Woods Hole would also operate daily between June 19 and Sept. 10.
Management has also proposed the elimination of the hazardous designation for freight vessels on weekends and holidays, which would free up reservation space.
Describing some of the changes to the schedule at last week's meeting, Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said that running a late boat daily instead of only on the weekends would benefit the public, in particular residents.
"It provides a later time for folks to go and come back," he said.
Mr. Lamson suggested the schedule might further be changed to shift more boats to Oak Bluffs, including the 7 am out of Woods Hole now scheduled for Vineyard Haven. He said all of the changes were being proposed in response to the reported traffic congestion that occurs in Tisbury.
Mr. Lamson said any shift was not expected to significantly affect the cost of operating the Oak Bluffs terminal.
This week, Mr. Hanover said the 2006 schedules were based on the assumption that the Island Home, due to replace the venerable Islander, would be in service in time for the summer season on the Vineyard Haven run and the ferry Martha's Vineyard would service Oak Bluffs.
The Island Home's increased capacity and speed is expected to provide added efficiency on the route. Damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi shipyard where the vessel is under construction is expected to delay delivery until sometime next fall at the earliest.
Mr. Hanover said he still favors proceeding with the second proposed schedule. He said one outstanding issue he continues to poll regular commuters on is any change to the 7 am boat that would require commuters to shift from Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs. He said the overwhelming sense he gets is that riders, many of who keep a car in the Tisbury Park and Ride lot, oppose any move.
The SSA currently pays Tisbury approximately $70,000 to operate the park and ride lot that services the Vineyard Haven terminal. Mr. Hanover said Oak Bluffs officials are currently examining the creation of a park and ride lot for Oak Bluffs SSA customers.
During the public comment period at the Thursday SSA meeting, E. Winn Davis, Dukes County manager, said that the county commissioners had voted at an earlier meeting to support the position taken by SSA management and Mr. Hanover that the boatline revenues not be used to subsidize police traffic control at the Vineyard Haven terminal.
In the past, the SSA paid the town approximately $46,000 per year for providing police officers to direct traffic and assist pedestrians leaving the terminal. But the boatline said it would no longer make payments following the imposition of a 50 cent per passenger embarkation fee by the state legislature designed to generate funds for port communities to use to mitigate the impacts of ferry service.
According to the legislation, towns must use the embarkation funds solely for mitigating the impacts of ferry service in the town. Money deposited may be appropriated for uses including, but not limited to, providing harbor services, public safety protection, emergency services or infrastructure improvements within and around the harbor.
The SSA maintains that the cost of police coverage is exactly what the ferry fee was intended to cover. Tisbury selectmen insist it is the town's right to decide how to spend the town's share of embarkation money, approximately $270,000 in 2004 and the SSA should continue to make payments for police services.
This spring, Tisbury selectmen voted to use embarkation fee money to fund the purchase of a new fire department pumper truck and a police cruiser.