Tisbury will pay to police SSA terminal
Town gives up effort to get funds from SSA
A long-running battle between the town of Tisbury, led by its selectmen, and the Steamship Authority (SSA) over which is responsible to pay for police to direct traffic around the boatline's Vineyard Haven terminal left the driving public stuck in the middle last summer. But, the warfare appears to be at an end.
The selectmen have proposed using $40,000 of the $276,182 generated by a state legislature-imposed passenger embarkation ferry fee to pay for additional police coverage at the Tisbury SSA terminal, including Five Corners, an intersection that seems to breed gridlock.
Traffic often snakes back to the Lagoon Pond drawbridge in mid-summer. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The measure is contingent on voter approval at Tisbury's annual town meeting Tuesday of an embarkation fee spending formula under which the town would allocate 25 percent ($69,000) to safety equipment and operations.
"It was time to move on," said John Bugbee, Tisbury town administrator, about the change in town policy. "We still believe in the position we took, and I think we did the right thing. However, it didn't make sense to hold the public hostage while we debated the issue with the Steamship Authority. We will continue to work with the Steamship Authority to come up with a mutual agreement about traffic management, and in the meantime we are going to have an increased police presence around the Steamship Authority to first and foremost uphold public safety, but also keep the flow of pedestrians and traffic alike moving as swiftly as possible."
Following a particularly contentious summer season, SSA and Tisbury officials agreed at a meeting last fall to work cooperatively to reconfigure the terminal layout to improve the flow of traffic and pedestrians.
The SSA agreed to work with a consultant from the Cecil Group, a planning and design firm that has worked with the town and SSA on other projects, to come up with improvements.
Tisbury town officials agreed to consider all options, including allowing vehicles to exit from the north side of the terminal facing Union Street. The selectmen disputed the notion that they had endorsed a policing policy that directed traffic officers only to pay attention to pedestrians and not vehicles exiting the terminal, or that they had eliminated police officers at Five Corners.
"We are committed to do a better job," Tristan Israel, Tisbury selectman, told SSA officials at the time.
Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said this week the SSA had been working with selectmen over the past few months about ways to improve traffic flow. Selectmen had agreed to provide police staffing, he said.
"I think it will be a tremendous help," said Mr. Lamson.
In the months ahead, the SSA plans to move the check-in booth further into the parking area in an attempt to alleviate vehicles backing up along Water Street. The current staging lanes used for vehicles and trucks will be switched in order to provide room for trucks to turn. Plans also call for two check-in lines during busy hours.
The helter-skelter parking arrangement in the pick-up and drop-off area which often results in vehicles getting blocked in will be replaced by a designated drive-through lane with diagonal parking spaces on either side.
Mr. Lamson said all of the changes, including moving the booth, will be made on a temporary basis this season.
The battle over traffic control began three years ago when SSA management, with the support of then Vineyard SSA member Kathryn Roessel, said that boatline ratepayers should not have to subsidize the cost of police details when Tisbury receives hundreds of thousands of dollars per year from a 50-cent per passenger fee intended to mitigate the impacts of ferry service on port towns.
Town selectmen insisted the SSA continue to pay for the cost of police traffic details, as it had prior to enactment of the embarkation fee legislation. In response to the SSA's refusal, the town no longer assigned police officers to the terminal to direct traffic. Traffic officers, mostly young people hired for the summer, were told to concentrate on assisting pedestrians and not traffic exiting the terminal.
Five corners gridlock became a regular occurrence. Driver frustration with the impasse between the SSA and Tisbury officials was further exacerbated by the sight of traffic officers standing by idly on the sidewalk.
The issue boiled over one Monday last August, when a combination of bad weather kept people away from the beaches and limited the use of the Oak Bluffs terminal. The result was a glut of vehicles and passengers arriving at the Vineyard Haven terminal more or less simultaneously. As a result, cars and trucks jammed the Five Corners intersection and created a line of traffic stretching back along State Road beyond Cronig's and on Beach Road to the Lagoon bridge.
The embarkation fee legislation mandated that all passenger ferry operations carrying more than 100 passengers collect a per passenger fee. That money is then distributed on a quarterly basis to eight SSA port towns, including Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Falmouth, Nantucket, and Barnstable.
According to the legislation, towns must use the 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.
Last year, $239,395 in 2004 embarkation fee revenue was used to help purchase a new fire department pumper truck and a new police vehicle.
Ted Saulnier, Tisbury chief of police, originally requested that the $40,000 to fund traffic officers be included in his department's operating budget. Mr. Bugbee advised him that it would be appropriate to use funds from the ferry passenger embarkation fee.
Also included in the safety equipment and operations budget is $10,000 for hiring, training, and equipping police officers to fill vacancies and $5,000 to purchase and install a new telephone system.
In a recent telephone conversation, Chief Saulnier distanced himself from the traffic management policy applied the last several years. Mr. Saulnier said he had advised the selectmen early on in the dispute that in the interests of public safety the town should staff the terminal, but the selectmen wanted to handle it differently. He said this year the selectmen agreed with the need for adequate police coverage.
If there is a problem this summer it will likely not be Chief Saulnier's to worry about. He and Tisbury selectmen could not agree on the terms of a new contract. Selectmen are currently searching for a new chief of police.
Chief Saulnier said his budget for the 2007 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, includes a full complement of traffic officers similar to staffing levels prior to the dispute with the SSA. "The influx of people in the summer is not going to stop any time soon," said Mr. Saulnier, "and therefore there will be some traffic tie-ups no matter what. Keeping traffic moving in a safe manner is what I'm concerned with, and that is what the officers will be able to do."
Echoing the conventional Island view, Chief Saulnier said that placing a traffic officer at Five Corners would not necessarily make traffic flow any faster but, he said, it may help it move more smoothly and safely.
"Sometimes, people think having an officer makes things move slower,"' he said. "The convenience factor is not going to change if it takes the same amount of time."
Mr. Saulnier said he would like to staff the intersections around the SSA terminal with at a minimum of three people, more on high volume days, during all SSA operating hours.
He said the traffic officers are typically college age people who are not highly trained or highly paid. They would be trained by veteran officers to handle Vineyard Haven's unique intersections.
"Pedestrian safety comes first, then vehicle safety, and then the traffic flow," he said. "Unfortunately, there's still going to be traffic, and there still will be complaints."