Steamship Authority claims Packer barges are unlicensed
In their first meeting of the New Year, on Tuesday, Steamship Authority (SSA) members made changes to the Nantucket boarding policy, adopted a customer policy handbook, and expressed irritation with Ralph M. Packer, the owner of Tisbury Towing, for ignoring SSA requests that he stop barging rental cars, absent an agreement with the boatline permitting him to do so.
Marc Hanover, Vineyard Steamship Authority member, raised the issue of the continuing transportation of rental company cars to and from the Island by Mr. Packer, who owns the towing company, its tugboats and tank and deck barges, as well as the fuel depot on Vineyard Haven Harbor.
Mr. Packer has no licensing agreement with the boatline, which has authority granted from the state to license certain competitive transportation companies, for instance HyLine, the Island Queen, and the Martha's Vineyard Fast Ferry. Mr. Packer's towing company shifts Hertz rental vehicles to and from the Vineyard on barges. The Steamship Authority's enabling legislation requires companies that transport freight for hire or resale to be licensed by the authority.
Mr. Hanover told his fellow members that he spoke to Mr. Packer, but that Mr. Packer was "...not too concerned. He needs to be reminded that this is not acceptable." Mr. Hanover suggested the Steamship Authority send Mr. Packer a letter.
"I've sent two letters already," said Steamship Authority general manager Wayne Lamson, "It doesn't seem to be working."
Mr. Lamson said he told Mr. Packer he must stop barging cars between the mainland and the Vineyard, or get a license from the authority to do so. He said he told the rental car companies the Steamship Authority is willing to work with them to transport vehicles in quantity in an efficient manner.
The board said that if Mr. Packer did not comply, the next step would be to go to court to request an injunction.
Following Tuesday's meeting, Mr. Packer told The Times that he charters his barges to various companies, including Hertz. He said he did not agree with the Steamship Authority view that he needs a license.
Mr. Packer offered several reasons for his view. He said he had been barging for 50 years and his service is grandfathered; he said the late Grace Grossman, the longtime Nantucket Steamship Authority member told him that barges and tugs were exempt; and, he argued, he only makes the barge available to charterers.
In a follow-up conversation, Mr. Lamson told The Times he sent letters to Mr. Packer last spring and this fall. He said it might be left to a judge to decide if Mr. Packer is exempt.
Paved with intentions
The first members' meeting of the New Year also saw a new chairman installed, Nantucket Steamship Authority member Flint Ranney, who gaveled the meeting to order and offered some introductory remarks.
Mr. Ranney said the boatline must do a better job of letting the public know about its successes and continue to let the public know quickly about mistakes. He recommended a motto for the upcoming year, "We are good, we should be great." There was no dissension.
The members began the year with a capital project update presented by Carl Walker, director of engineering. Mr. Walker reported that the Steamship Authority's Fairhaven maintenance facility pier project is behind schedule, due to the amount of unexpected debris found during excavation on the pier site. The SSA is also waiting for the state to release funds needed to begin dredging. That is not expected to take place until March, pushing the project's completion back until some time this fall.
Mr. Walker also reported that a delay in the delivery of large diameter pipes had set the Oak Bluffs terminal reconstruction back by approximately two to three weeks.
He said crews were working Saturdays in an effort to make up the lost time. The scheduled completion date is April 28. He expects the Oak Bluffs terminal to be available for the start of seasonal service.
The cost of the mid-life refurbishment of the ferry Nantucket got more expensive when crews ran into problems removing asbestos and needed to replace additional steel flooring. Change orders have added about $435,000 to the project, or almost double the amount included in the budget. That project is on schedule.
A recommendation by Nantucket terminal employees led the board to revise the boarding policy now used when there is a disruption in service due to a trip cancellation.
The policy had been to board reservations and emergency vehicles first, followed by travelers holding a reservation from a cancelled trip or trips, based on the order those ticket holders arrived at the terminal and were placed in a standby line.
Because there is very little space to stage standby vehicles, terminal employees suggested those holding tickets for cancelled trips be boarded based on the time their reservation was made. The board agreed. Customers will now be given a number and be contacted when it appears there will be space on a boat. Mr. Ranney said travelers would not have to waste time going down to the terminal to wait for a boat they will not get on.
There was no discussion of a request to amend the license agreement with the New England Fast Ferry Company. The members agreed to allow the company that operates fast ferry service between New Bedford and Martha's Vineyard to provide only two daily round trips instead of three from April 15 to May 20.
Last month the board approved a change that allowed the company to drop weekend fast-ferry service in the winter. The company made the request because winter ridership has not been sufficient to offset expenses, including rising fuel costs.
The members also approved a comprehensive "customer policies and procedures handbook" that covers all aspects of the Steamship Authority's reservation policies, something even longtime riders and employees have difficulty keeping straight.
Mr. Ranney observed that youth groups traveling outside the auspices of the public school are often unaware they may qualify for a discount. He said it is important that ticket agents do their best to let groups and individuals know about any available discounts, such as those embedded in passenger ticket books.
Moving to the 2008 operating budget, the members listened to Bob Davis, Steamship Authority treasurer, explain the calculus of rising oil prices and revised revenue projections and costs. The bottom line is that 2007 was a good year, and the SSA expects a net operating income of $3,974,495 versus an earlier projection of $3,098,415.
With no discussion, the board approved a 2009 fiscal year transportation agreement that provides a 50 percent discount for the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School District. Teachers, administrators, student groups, and game officials will be able to travel for a fixed price of $55,000.
In other business, Mr. Lamson said the boatline would replace a problematic generator on the Island Home. The malfunctioning generator is still under warranty. He said the equipment switch would take place at night and is not expected to result in a disruption in service.