Steamship Authority approves fare hikes, schedule shift
The cost to travel to and from Martha's Vineyard on Steamship Authority (SSA) vessels will rise in the New Year. Passengers, vehicle drivers and truckers will all pay more to help the boatline offset the increased cost of fuel and insurance and a continuing decline in boatline traffic.
Meeting in Tisbury, the SSA members minus their New Bedford colleague last week voted unanimously to approve a $72 million 2006 operating budget that included across-the-board rate hikes, mostly on the Vineyard route, and set next year's summer and fall schedules which include shifting several boats to Oak Bluffs.
The increases, which also extended to the Nantucket side of the route, were needed to help make up an estimated $4 million revenue shortfall, according to management.
Fares will rise
The subject of fare increases, often a hot topic, generated little discussion or public comment. The comments of SSA board members reflected a sense of resignation that appeared to be shared by many in the room that there were no good alternatives.
"I hope I never have to approve rate increases of this size again," said Marc Hanover, Vineyard member and SSA board chairman.
Flint Ranney, Nantucket board member, said he was "not a fan of rate increases" and only reluctantly made a motion to adopt the management recommendations.
The fare increases are based on the cost of service and fall most heavily on the Vineyard side of the ledger - to the tune of $3,200,000 of the $4 million that boatline management said is needed in 2006.
Beginning on Jan. 1, the cost of a one-way adult passenger ticket rises from $5.50 to $6. The legislatively imposed ferry embarkation fee adds an additional 50 cents, bringing the cost of a round-trip ticket to $13.
The embarkation fee is paid to the town where the trip originates and is designed to generate funds for port communities to use to mitigate the impacts of ferry service. Islanders are exempt from the fee if they buy tickets by the discount book, use excursion fares, or travel with sports teams.
The cost of a one-way ticket for a senior or a child will rise from $2.75 to $3. A 46-ride commuter book will go up from $100 to $110.
One-way auto rates for vehicles under 17 feet will increase by $5 - from $57 to $63 in season, and $35 to $38 off season; rates for vehicles over that length will rise from $67 to $72 (in season), and $45 to $48 (off season).
Discounted round-trip auto excursion rates for Island residents will jump by $6 in the off-season and $8 in season. As a result, off-Island shopping trips will cost $45 off-season and $73 in season, for vehicles less than 17 feet, and $65 and $93 for those over that length.
Motorcyclists will also pay $2 more for both one-way and round-trip excursion tickets.
Truckers will pay 10 percent more for vehicles over 20 feet in length, and effective April 1, there will no longer be an off-season rate for vehicles 30 feet or longer.
As a result, the round-trip fare for a truck between 50 and 55 feet, for example, will be $380.
Oak Bluffs bound
In the weeks leading up to the October monthly meeting, Tisbury selectmen complained that the SSA had failed to consult with them about any schedule changes, and Tisbury business people claimed that shifting boats would harm local businesses.
Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said the management staff had considered the objections but continued to think that the proposed changes would help relieve some of the congestion in the area of the Vineyard Haven terminal that had been the source of earlier complaints.
The issue of traffic at Five Corners drew various perspectives on the problem. Paul Cotton, a local businessman, said, "That congestion is what we need."
Mr. Hanover had another view. "Gridlock is not good for our passengers," he said.
Bob Breth, owner of a bike rental shop on Five Corners said he had a unique perspective, since he owned a business in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, and had a front row seat.
He said what was needed was not a traffic study or moving boats but a police officer to direct traffic. "When you have a competent police officer there, it empties out in ten minutes," he said.
On another scheduling issue, Mr. Lamson said he planned to meet with the headmaster of Falmouth Academy in an effort to help Vineyard-bound students make the early afternoon 2:30 pm boat.
The Nantucket schedule included the cost-saving substitution of a freight boat for a large passenger boat, and the elimination of a freight run.
Speed was on the mind of Bob Marshall, Falmouth SSA member, who pressed management about why some captains were not cutting back on speed in order to reduce fuel consumption and costs, to the tune of an estimated $500,000. Told that management was working with the captains to get them to comply, Mr. Marshall said slowing down to save on fuel was no longer "an option" but a necessity.
As the meeting in the Katharine Cornell Theatre drew to a close, Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel, adding a lighter note, noted the absence of the old plastic chairs and pointed with civic pride to the town's newly acquired, far more comfortable fabric chairs. "We're very proud of our chairs," he said.
Mr. Ranney, with a grin, could not resist a joke over the embarkation fee funds Tisbury receives. He asked Mr. Israel, "Did the money come out of the ferry fee?"