Hands off, we'll do it
Matthew Patrick, a Democrat who represents the Third Barnstable District, supports legislation that would make the Steamship Authority - like the MBTA, Massport, and the Massachusetts Turnpike - a dependent of the state's Executive Office of Transportation (EOT). In 2004, the legislation that brought these agencies, and others, under EOT exempted the SSA. The bill Mr. Patrick now supports also benefits from the enthusiastic lobbying of labor union representatives, who have been deadlocked for four years in bitter and extended contract negotiations with the boatline. (We report this morning that the boatline and the Marine Engineering Beneficial Association (MEBA) have reached a tentative agreement, subject to ratification by the union members next month.) Still, Mr. Patrick, in an essay published June 15 in the Falmouth Enterprise, writes, "It is not about a labor issue. It is about creating a unified transportation system in the Commonwealth."
Labor's enthusiasm for adding the Steamship Authority to the EOT herd derives from its sense of its political power on Beacon Hill and the promise that its strength in Boston will help it win new concessions, and extend old ones, from the boatline. It is silly to talk, as Mr. Patrick does, about a statewide "unified transportation system", whatever that may be, when Massachusetts taxpayers know that many of the organizations now under the EOT umbrella are inefficient, poorly managed, infected with high-pay beneficiaries of political patronage, costly, and chaotic. If coordinating transportation planning and resources is desirable, and of course it is, the Steamship Authority is able, and would undoubtedly be willing, to join the effort, while keeping a sharp eye out for its own - and our - financial and operating interests. Putting the boatline in the portfolio of a political appointee in Boston, subject to the appropriating authority of the state legislature, is a recipe for, well, think Big Dig.
In his essay, Mr. Patrick points out, correctly, that the boatline's record is open to attack, particularly on two grounds. Traffic volumes have declined steadily for the past five years, and fares have increased. In fact, the boatline is struggling to discover how to meet these two hobbling trends, and making heavy weather of it. The 21st century will demand an increasingly efficient organization, structured for narrowly focused operation, with streamlined governance and innovative financing. It will demand a strategic plan that contemplates steady change and improvement, but flexible response to a changing transportation environment. The boatline members or management cannot construct such a plan. It will require outside, experienced, disinterested, and professional scrutiny, and plenty of new ideas. The effort to build such a view of the Steamship Authority's future ought to begin soon.
Without it, and faced with decreasing traffic and the annual need to increase fares, the Steamship Authority will also face justifiable criticism from its constituents, customers, and from Beacon Hill, all threatening to the independent financial and operating existence of the boatline as we've known it.