In your pocket
The gloomy truth is that as of the middle of this month, the Steamship Authority reports passenger, auto, and freight traffic to and from the Vineyard was all down for the year so far, freight worst of all. It's a familiar story. Passenger and freight volumes have been weak and declining annually for years, although freight (really, trucks) has been generally up.
On the up side - for the SSA treasury, that is, not for us - revenue in each category is up. How is that, you ask. It's because the Steamship Authority, beset with high and growing costs, along with declining customer volumes and maybe some price resistance in the marketplace, keeps raising the rates. Of course, the boatline's price hikes wound visitors more acutely than they do year-round Islanders, who benefit from an intricate array of discount possibilities, but still the cost of coming and going, and the cost of bringing stuff here, not to mention the cost of sending our trash away, all rises.
Sixty percent or more of every dollar the Steamship Authority spends goes to payroll and benefits. The current boatline leadership, general manager and members, is pressing hard to trim or at least slow those costs. Becoming more technologically adept, streamlining operations, even building larger, more capacious vessels, all add efficiencies that can stabilize costs, if not reduce them. A sound strategic plan, looking ahead five or ten years and considering capital planning, fleet planning, market changes might help too, but little attention has been devoted to such planning work since the departure of Armand Tiberio, in the midst of the New Bedford/fast ferry debacle. But, of course, a strict insistence on labor concessions in contracts with its five unions must play a part in the Steamship Authority's efforts to control costs and, ultimately, fares. This determination on leadership's part has put it at sharp odds with union workers.
Hence, the stealthy legislative effort to put the now independent Steamship Authority (SSA) within the Executive Office of Transportation and add a voting member, as we report this morning.
Vineyard, Nantucket, and Barnstable elected officials have added their support to the Steamship Authority's effort to block passage of House bill No. 3681, which will be heard this morning by the Joint Committee on Transportation.
The SSA and the Marine Engineering Beneficial Association (MEBA) have been unable to agree on a contract for more than four years. Though the union leaders deny a link to the legislation, the connection is obvious, as the Steamship Authority sees it.
The bill would expand the authority board from five to six members, adding the Secretary of Transportation or a designee. The weighted vote of the Vineyard and Nantucket members, now 35 percent each, would be reduced to 30 percent. The port council would also be expanded from five to six members.
Rep. Joseph F. Wagner of Chicopee in Western Mass, Rep. Mathew C. Patrick of Falmouth, and Rep. Cleon H. Turner of Barnstable filed the bill. None of them has ever attended an SSA meeting. But, the union leadership and pliable state representatives have been willing to press such tactics before, seeking leverage for special interest groups that have been dissatisfied in their dealings with the boatline.
Islanders will need to watch this bill carefully. Their financial health, as well as the Steamship Authority's, is at stake. This legislation represents a hand dipping into your pocket as well as the boatline's treasury.