I was disappointed to read the editorial about the Steamship Authority (SSA) in the Nov. 15, 2007 edition of The Martha's Vineyard Times, entitled "Cooking up no progress." Contrary to the editorial's negative assessment of the SSA, over the past few years the SSA has lowered its expenses, become more efficient and improved its customer service. One of the many ways it has done this is by widening and lengthening all of its freight boats so it can carry more vehicles in fewer trips. At the same time, the SSA has reduced manning levels on its vessels without jeopardizing safety. It has also increased the number of preferred spaces on the more popular trips for Islanders, and has greatly improved its web site and computer reservation system, allowing customers to make and change their reservations even on the day of sailing. And, of course, it has introduced the two latest additions to its fleet - the M/V Island Home and the M/V Iyanough - which represent new, higher standards of comfort and service for all its customers. Despite these improvements in the SSA's operations, the editorial bemoans the SSA's failure to "divert significant passenger traffic from Woods Hole to fast passenger-only ferries from the Whaling City" and the SSA's similar failure to employ "fast freight ferries to serve the Vineyard and Nantucket." But that is not what Islanders want the SSA to do; nor would it make any financial sense to have the SSA invest millions of dollars in such fast passenger and freight ferries at this time. Yes, we want the SSA "to make ferry travel less expensive and more efficient in the future," as the editorial notes, but that is exactly what the SSA has been doing by focusing on its own operations rather than on grand service models designed to placate other interests.
Ironically, the editorial complains about how the Steamship Authority has "sadly" failed to "exploit" these opportunities in the same edition where the newspaper reports that New England Fast Ferry is asking the SSA for permission to substantially reduce - and possibly eliminate in the future - its off-season fast ferry passenger service between the Vineyard and New Bedford because it is losing money, due to high fuel costs and low winter ridership. Similarly, last year the SSA granted Hy-Line's request to discontinue its new fast ferry service between Hyannis and Oak Bluffs during the months of December through March. Imagine what a financial drain those fast ferries would have been on the SSA.
The editorial also unfairly describes the Steamship Authority's port council as "an amalgamation of representatives of town by town interest groups, whose objective appears to be to demand that SSA decisions be made to accommodate the parochial clamor of individual ports." Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who has attended any of the port council meetings over the last three years will attest. The reality is that the port council is more effective than anyone could have imagined when it was created in 2002. Highly publicized confrontations between communities seem like ancient history now, and the port council should be recognized as an important reason for much of that progress. It reviews almost all management proposals and recommendations before they are presented to the SSA's board for consideration. It also serves as a resource to the board by investigating (often at the board's request) particularly troublesome boatline issues - such as the SSA's licensing policy, its customer handbook, and freight reservation problems. And it almost always arrives at unanimous recommendations that are ultimately recognized by the board as much needed improvements to the SSA's operations.
In sum, the Steamship Authority is becoming more efficient, improving customer service, and holding down fares by focusing on all aspects of its operations. While few of the SSA's improvements have been sexy or controversial enough to make the newspapers, together they represent the steady incremental progress that the SSA has made - and will continue to make - in order to provide Islanders with the quality of service we want and deserve at a price we all can afford.
Marc Hanover lives in Oak Bluffs. He is the Vineyard member of the Steamship Authority.