Truckers request Saturday freight run
In the heart of the winter, Martha's Vineyard could run out of the fuel needed to heat houses and business. With current natural gas storage capacity only sufficient to meet day-to-day needs, a prolonged northeaster could precipitate a crisis.
That was the message delivered forcefully at a meeting between freight shippers and truckers and Steamship Authority (SSA) management Tuesday, in the boatline's Tisbury terminal office.
More than 20 Island truckers and business people representing major Island fuel, grocery and trucking interests attended the meeting hosted by SSA general manager Wayne Lamson and Gina Barboza, reservations manager.
SSA management called the meeting to discuss proposed 2008 schedules and a proposal to change the bulk freight reservation procedures. Under the current priority system, all food is included in one classification.
The proposed change would create four separate food classes, differentiating between truckers carrying perishable food and non-perishable food, and deliveries to one or two central locations versus multiple stops.
But much of the conversation focused on the need for increased and timelier freight service. The truckers said that in some cases shipping companies end up paying a man to sit in a truck while he waits for a boat.
"I hate to say it," said trucker Steve Araujo, "but its not little Martha's Vineyard anymore. If you're going to provide the service, please provide the service."
Of particular concern was the need for scheduled Saturday hazardous freight service during January and February and over holiday periods.
Only specially designated trips may carry fuel trucks. The SSA currently designates two trips coming to the Vineyard and three returning to the mainland as hazardous. No vehicles or trucks shorter than 20 feet are allowed on those boats.
Currently, the SSA does not schedule weekend hazardous freight service, although the need for such trips is increasing, fuel suppliers said.
Cliff Karako, general manager of Vineyard Propane, said he is the largest Island supplier of natural gas used for cooking and heating purposes. Mr. Karako said that due to demand and growth, shipments received in the morning and transferred to one of the company's four 30,000-gallon storage tanks are gone by the end of the day in the dead of the winter.
"We have one day of coverage," said Mr. Karako. He said that if a northeaster were to hit on a Friday or a Monday, disrupting freight service, the Island could potentially be without fuel for three to five days.
Although the past two winters were unusually mild, reducing demand, he said an unusually severe winter could result in serious problems. And demand will only continue to grow, he added.
Mr. Karako said his company planned to add additional storage tanks but had no way to gauge how long the regulatory process would take. In the interim, he said it is critical that the SSA add additional trips in the winter.
Mr. Karako said that he would guarantee three to four trucks. Others in the room said that they would also take advantage of a weekend hazardous trip.
Mr. Karako said that in December, January and February, he receives up to five trucks per day, or approximately 50,000 gallons. He can off-load three trucks per day. That requires a hazardous trip that allows enough time for unloading.
Mr. Karako said the company is discussing the need for added storage but expects that will take some time.
Ralph M. Packer Jr., owner of R.M. Packer Company, which supplies home heating oil and gasoline, said that this winter he would shift from barging and storing gasoline to shipping gasoline from mainland suppliers to his fuel stations using his company's trucks. He said new regulations made it almost impossible to maintain storage tanks. "You cannot believe what we have to do," said Mr. Packer about the regulations.
He asked the SSA to provide an afternoon hazardous trip so his drivers could return to the Island with fuel.
Mr. Lamson explained that a combination of Coast Guard regulations and union work rules restrict the boatline's flexibility in assigning crews and add to the costs of service that ultimately must be made up at the fare box. For example, he said, in some cases adding another boat run to a schedule means the SSA must bring on an entire crew. That crew must be paid for an entire shift, whether they are sailing or sitting at the dock.
Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig's Markets, asked, "Is it possible to get the other players in the room?" He suggested it would be productive to invite union members to be part of a discussion about work rules that hinder the boatline's flexibility.
Mr. Lamson looked surprised at the suggestion. The SSA recently reached agreement with members of the SSA's largest union, after more than three years of often tense negotiations that included drawn out battles over work rules.
He explained to Mr. Bernier that management is either operating under the terms of previously agreed contracts or negotiating the terms of new contracts. It is, he said, management's job to eliminate some of those work rules.
"Those union rules right now I think have us handcuffed," said Mr. Bernier.
Mr. Lamson said management would continue to discuss work rules and manning requirements.
As for this winter, he said the SSA could provide Saturday service, but the truckers would need to commit to the service, and there would be no refunds for cancellations.
Mr. Karako assured him that filling the boat would not be a problem.