Island Home's lift deck policy has ups and downs
The Steamship Authority's (SSA) new Island Home appears to have successfully sailed through its inaugural summer season. By most accounts, passengers and boatline management were pleased with the vessel's performance and many amenities.
The $32 million ferry built to replace the Islander after more than 55 years of service incorporated a number of new design features including greater speed, larger vehicle and passenger capacity, more spacious deck and passenger areas, television and wireless Internet access.
But one new feature that saw infrequent use during the summer months is the two lift decks that allow the vessel to increase capacity from 60 to 76 vehicles.
SSA management said it wanted to proceed cautiously.
The starboard lift deck in the down position. Photo courtesy of SSA
The reluctance to use the lift decks on a regular basis has created frustration on the part of vehicle drivers left waiting in standby. It also spawned rumors, not substantiated by any published reports, that the Tisbury selectmen had asked that the lift decks not be used.
As management continues to assess the use of the decks, Marc Hanover, the SSA Vineyard member, said that he would like to see more use made of the lift decks, in particular when vehicles are waiting in standby for passage.
In a recent e-mail to The Times from the Vineyard Haven terminal parking lot, Benjamin Hannigan of Edgartown expressed his frustration at watching the Island Home sail away with its lift decks raised.
"As I sit here in standby and watch our new boat come and go from the harbor I can't help but ask myself, why the Island Home has yet to my knowledge used those amazing lift decks," wrote Mr. Hannigan. "Do they work? Is it too much trouble? Do those spaces go to reservations? Is it because there is only one hydraulic system onboard and they are afraid of breakdowns? If standby is still an issue, why is this expensive part of our new vessel left to collect dust? I have asked around and can't get an answer."
When first proposed, the lift decks were seen as a tool that could be used to alleviate vessel backups and provide added efficiency, which would help reduce costs.
According to published reports, the lift decks generated minimal concern during the public forums and meetings that led up to agreement on the final design plans.
The public was first asked to weigh in on the subject of lift decks at a public forum on Jan. 30, 2003, sponsored by the Dukes County commissioners and Kathryn Roessel, the Vineyard SSA member at the time. Approximately 50 Islanders turned out and offered views on the relative merits of various design components, including lift decks.
Ms. Roessel proposed a straw vote on three design options: a boat without lift decks, one with lift decks, and one with lift decks but with strict regulations on when they could be used to increase capacity. The tally was 7, 18, and 10, respectively.
In September 2003 at a public forum attended by fewer than a dozen people, the SSA presented a design for the new vessel by the Elliott Bay Design Group, a Seattle-based marine architecture and design company. It featured a single wheelhouse and lift decks that could be raised or lowered depending on need.
In August 2004 the SSA management team presented revised design plans that incorporated lift decks. The major change to come out of the public comment period was the boatline's decision to move from a single to a dual pilothouse design.
The issue of how best to use the lift decks arose at a SSA monthly meeting in November 2006 at which the board voted to approve a slate of rate hikes designed to make up a $4 million shortfall in the boatline's 2007 operating budget.
During the discussion that preceded a vote to approve the 2007 summer schedule, board chairman Robert Marshall of Falmouth pointed out that the lift capacity of the new boat would not be used under normal circumstances and would only be available to help alleviate backups. He said that during the many meetings surrounding the design of the boat, Vineyard residents spoke against using the increase in capacity to carry vehicles on a regular basis.
At that same meeting Mr. Hanover said that he had heard from a number of Islanders who were having difficulty getting off and on the Island that fall. Mr. Marshall said the additional spaces on the Island Home, scheduled to begin service that spring, would help in the future.
Regarding the additional capacity provided by the lift decks and any change in policy that would place those spaces in the reservation pool, there was general agreement that it would be best to gain some experience operating the vessel before considering those options.
Time to reconsider
On October 16 the SSA is scheduled to hold its monthly board meeting in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Hanover said he hopes to hear from Islanders regarding the use of the lift decks.
In a telephone conversation with The Times last week, Mr. Hanover said that management is reluctant to use the lift decks except in cases where vehicles may be stranded overnight.
Mr. Hanover said that the reservation wait list and the same day reservation that allows a passenger to make a reservation up to one hour before sailing are working very well. "That has taken a lot of the anxiety and waiting in line for hours out of the system," he said.
Mr. Hanover said that management prefers to have a controlled flow of vehicles and avoid a situation where the late boats sails partially empty because waiting vehicles went ahead.
Mr. Hanover acknowledged that the lift decks have seen some use. He said that the weekend of the motorcycle gathering known as the "Run to the Rock," instead of putting on another boat management used the lift deck.
"My understanding is that it went quite well," he said.
Mr. Hanover said he fully understands Mr. Hannigan's frustration and shares his bewilderment at watching a boat sail away while he waited in line. Mr. Hanover said he thinks that the terminal agents should have greater latitude to use the lift decks to pick up the slack. He said management's position is that if the lift decks are going to be used on a regular basis the SSA should sell the space.
Mr. Hanover said he would also favor eliminating no standby days and the blue line, the system that allows 15 vehicles owners with Islander preferred status to wait in standby during no standby periods.
Mr. Hanover said management thinks the elimination of no standby periods would prove chaotic. He disagrees but agreed that there are legitimate concerns that need to be discussed. He said management is concerned about what would happen should the Island Home have to cancel a trip due to weather or a breakdown. He said there is limited staging area.
Mr. Hanover said the SSA recently instituted a new policy for Nantucket. Vehicle drivers who opt for standby status are issued a number. Rather than waiting for hours in a line drivers leave the parking lot and call in periodically to check on when they can expect to sail.
Mr. Hanover said that management is concerned about the logistics of a similar system on the Vineyard because our vehicle volumes are so much greater. For now it is one of many topics of discussion he said.
The Cross Sound Ferry Company that provides regular private ferry service between New London, Ct and Orient Point, Long Island also utilizes hydraulic lift decks on two of its largest vessels.
The John H. can carry 120 vehicles and 1000 passengers and the Susan Anne has a capacity of 80 vehicles and 840 passengers.
According to Stanley Mickus, director of public affairs, the company's lift deck policy is straightforward. "We use them when demand warrants," he said.