Tisbury businesses protest ferry changes; SSA member says speak to port council member
Members of the Tisbury Business Association (TBA) met Tuesday with Marc Hanover, the Island member of the Steamship Authority, to discuss their concerns about a schedule shift that would send some boats to Oak Bluffs and to ask for more involvement in decision making.
The meeting between Mr. Hanover and the business leaders, held in the Mansion House hotel on Main Street, came only days before this morning's SSA meeting at which the board is to vote on 2006 rate hikes and summer/fall boat schedules.
The business people expressed concern about the possible negative effects any schedule shift would have on the Tisbury economy and a lack of communication with SSA officials.
It was Mr. Hanover's first official meeting with the TBA since his appointment as the Island member last December. It followed the latest eruption in his often fractious relationship with the Tisbury selectmen over the proposed schedule changes.
Mr. Hanover told the business owners that the schedule changes were designed to minimize traffic congestion. He laid the responsibility for better communication and more influence on SSA decisions at the feet of Tisbury's elected officials. In particular, Mr. Hanover said, it was the job of the town's appointed port council member to keep town officials and community leaders informed.
Only one member of the Tisbury selectmen, Tristan Israel, attended the afternoon meeting. Tom Pachico, a selectman and the board's appointed port council member, did not attend.
"The Steamship Authority has not met its responsibility in coming to us," said Steve Perlman, TBA president. "We have been communicating and have not heard from the Steamship Authority when there's a problem with the selectmen."
Mr. Hanover said that management's recommendations to shift boats had been discussed at the SSA's September monthly meeting. If business people were unaware of the changes, the fault was not with the boatline.
"I did business in this town for more than 20 years. This town has a history of not appreciating the business community," said Mr. Hanover. "One would think that having a selectman on the port council would help with communication, but it has not. The SSA management's recommendations have been out for over two months, and these should have been made available to the town."
In recent weeks, the TBA circulated a flyer headlined, "Just what we need, no movie and less boats!" The flyer said that, "Tisbury's bottom line is tied to the boat line," and urged business people to protest the SSA's proposal to shift three boats from Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs.
On Tuesday. business people quizzed Mr. Hanover on the SSA thinking behind the scheduling changes.
"You're going to have to run more boats in the winter if you have to take people off the Island to shop because all the businesses are shut down," said Paul Watts, executive vice president of the Bank of Martha's Vineyard.
Mr. Hanover, with help from Bridget Tobin, SSA Vineyard Haven terminal manager, went over the proposed 2006 ferry schedule, outlining the SSA's plan to shift the 11 am, 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm boats from Tisbury to Oak Bluffs between May 17 and October 10. Mr. Hanover cited Vineyard Haven's traffic congestion at Five Corners as the biggest factor.
At times when three boats are scheduled into Vineyard Haven within minutes of each other, there are 30-minute delays caused not so much by traffic off the boats but from traffic coming into town to pick up arriving passengers, Mr. Hanover said. As a result, the SSA cannot maintain its schedule.
Labeling this past summer's traffic "the worst ever," Mr. Hanover said, "We're lucky if we can turn a boat around in 45 minutes. Oak Bluffs can do it in 15."
Mr. Perlman asked Ms. Tobin why Oak Bluffs accomplished a faster turnaround time over the summer.
"We didn't have police coverage. When we did, traffic moved. It made a big difference," Ms. Tobin said highlighting a source of friction between the SSA and Tisbury selectmen throughout the summer months.
Tisbury insisted that the SSA continue to pay for police traffic details at the terminal. The SSA said it would no longer pay to subsidize service that the 50-cent embarkation fee — worth $200,000-plus — was intended to underwrite.
Calling the lack of police traffic control at the ferry terminal the "elephant in the room," Mr. Watts asked Mr. Israel outright whether he would support the use of embarkation fee money for traffic control.
Mr. Israel said the new ladder truck purchased by the town with embarkation fee dollars took precedence over other expenditures last year.
"Perhaps on the issue of a policeman, since we now have the fire truck, we can look ahead to perhaps mitigating traffic difficulties. It's not too late to have one for next season. It's a big issue," said Maureen Fischer, owner of Sunglasses and Then Some.
Considering that retail trade in Tisbury generated $21 million in wages in 2004, said Susie Goldstein, co-owner of the Mansion House, "What it costs for a patrolman, we might look at differently."
Of the 24 large ferry trips a day, scheduled from May through October next year, six will go into Oak Bluffs and 18 to Vineyard Haven. Although changing the 7:30 pm boat would affect some passengers, Ms. Tobin said, running the 9:45 pm boat into Vineyard Haven an additional four nights a week would allow people to stay on-Island later and leave later.
As business owners, the TBA members wanted statistics, such as what percentage of boats were late, records of times that boats arrived and left, and the passenger counts.
Sherman Goldstein, co-owner of the Mansion House, pointed out that the business owners have practical concerns when it comes to scheduling. "There is a gap at lunchtime, with nobody coming into Vineyard Haven. It's hard enough to run a restaurant in a dry town where people can't get here for lunch," he said, and proposed running a large ferry rather than a freight run around noontime.
Although he repeatedly said he was "here to listen," Mr. Israel repeatedly joined in the discussion, often clashing with Mr. Hanover. During one exchange, Mr. Israel accused the SSA of neglecting to meet with the selectmen before announcing the proposed schedule changes.
"It works both ways," Mr. Hanover responded. "Tommy [Pachico] has access to everything I receive - there's no element of surprise here."
Ms. Goldstein urged Mr. Hanover to make the TBA part of the loop so that they will receive the same information as Mr. Pachico.
Mr. Watts suggested the TBA draft a letter to the selectmen to ask that a business owner and not a selectman be appointed as the town's representative on the port council, as is the case with other port communities.
Mr. Israel defended the selectmen's appointment of Mr. Pachico, who is also a town employee, by saying that he represented the broader interests of the town.
Mr. Perlman said that the SSA had not informed the TBA when there had been problems in communication with Tisbury's selectmen regarding ferry scheduling issues.
"There needs to be better communication," said Mr. Perlman. "The port council is an avenue to the business community in other towns, but we don't have that. Keep us informed as a business community."
Mr. Hanover suggested that the TBA ask Mr. Pachico to meet with them.
Mr. Perlman asked that the SSA inform the TBA of future SSA meetings and decisions.
"We need to make the whole process so transparent that we can weigh in," said Ms. Goldstein. "We want our elected town officials to reflect what's good for the quality of life in our town."