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SSA

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This map prepared 24 years ago labeled "Design Concept for Vineyard Haven Port Redevelopment and Transportation Hub" shows a new terminal on Beach Road and a town park and marina where the present terminal is located.

More than 40 years ago, Tisbury selectman John Schilling, working with Martha’s Vineyard Commission planners, proposed to move the Tisbury Steamship Authority terminal down Beach Road past R.M. Packer’s marine facility. In an October 2013 essay, “Move the Steamship auto and truck traffic,” former SSA member J.B. Riggs Parker of Chilmark argued it was time to take another look at Mr. Schilling’s plan.

Last month, Tisbury selectmen asked the SSA to undertake a study to investigate the potential of relocating all or a portion of the SSA’s Vineyard Haven terminal “outside of downtown Vineyard Haven to improve operations and mitigate operational impacts,” according to a boatline management report.

At the Authority’s monthly meeting Tuesday in Woods Hole, SSA members authorized General Manager Wayne Lamson to meet with Tisbury officials to review previous studies and “discuss whether it would be useful to study any potential alternative sites that the town may want the SSA to consider.”

To the Editor:
The following is a copy of a letter to the West Tisbury selectmen.

I attended the Tuesday-evening public meeting with Steamship Authority officials at the regional high school Performing Arts Center. I went to speak out against some proposed changes at the SSA’s Vineyard Haven terminal (Feb. 25, “SSA plans changes to Vineyard Haven terminal staging lot”), and I did.

I was informed by Marc Hanover, the Vineyard representative on the SSA board, that the proposed changes were instigated by a Tisbury committee. The additional ticket booth would be a welcome change, but the removal of the covered walkway and the parking space in front of it, on Water Street, is definitely not. Replacing pickup/drop-off spaces with a lane of traffic is not an acceptable change. Replacing shelter from the elements with landscaping is not an acceptable change.

I am requesting that you make it clear to the Steamship Authority, the town of Tisbury, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission that any changes to the Steamship Authority’s handling of vehicle and pedestrian traffic at terminals that serve this Island are a matter of concern to the entire Island. No one committee of any one town here has the authority to speak for the entire Island on this matter, period.

Thank you for your attention to this matter,

Benoit Baldwin

West Tisbury

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Steamship Authority officials described in detail decision-making on $108 million in capital projects.

Steamship Authority General Counsel Steve Sayers presented plans for a new ferry terminal and dock facility in Woods Hole. – Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Steamship Authority (SSA) officials turned out in force Tuesday night for a public presentation on boatline projects and operations at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center, dominated by a detailed explanation of plans for a new $62 million ferry terminal and dock facility in Woods Hole.

The new design for the Woods Hole terminal features three usable slips and a new terminal. – Courtesy SSA
The new design for the Woods Hole terminal features three usable slips and a new terminal. – Courtesy SSA

SSA general counsel Steve Sayers took to the podium against an illustration of the proposed terminal design projected on a screen for what he described as a 20-minute presentation, which stretched to 90 minutes and ended with a detailed and arcane explanation of the authority’s bonding capacity.

In addition to SSA managers and the Vineyard, Nantucket, and Falmouth authority members, about 70 people sat scattered around the auditorium. Tristan Israel, Tisbury selectman and county commissioner, was among the few elected officials in the audience.

The presentation was scheduled in response to an online petition signed by nearly 3,000 people, asking the Steamship Authority to roll back price increases that took effect in January amid complaints that the boatline was not communicating with Island residents.

Mr. Sayers described the many deficiencies of the Woods Hole terminal and dock arrangements, that include an unusable third slip and an outmoded office building that takes up valuable dockside space. Plans to improve it have been on the drawing boards for a long time, he said, but had been deferred in favor of other projects.

After examining all options, the decision, he said, was made to redesign and rebuild the entire Woods Hole facility, a $62 million project. “We know you already pay a lot for this service,” Mr. Sayers said. “It’s a difficult decision, and indeed a radical one, because no one likes change. It’s better to demolish and start fresh.”

Mr. Sayers said the terminal, along with a new $40 million hybrid freight vessel, and a $6 million office building for Steamship Authority staff, will be financed by a combination of reserve funds and borrowing, stretched over 30 years.

Asked how the capital projects will affect future rates, Mr. Sayers said they will increase operating costs by 2.5 percent over the next five years. The Steamship Authority board will decide whether to increase rates to cover the costs.

Question time

Following the terminal presentation, Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard representative to the Steamship Authority board, and General Manager Wayne Lamson, fielded questions from those in attendance. Questions ran the gamut from individual complaints to design and policy issues.

Several asked the SSA to consider moving the reservation office to provide jobs for Vineyard residents, and to keep the ticket office in the Martha’s Vineyard Airport terminal.

“I’m asking if you will consider moving some of those jobs here to the Island,” Mr. Israel said. “If we can get some of the economic benefit of this new improved terminal, that would help ameliorate some of the situation on the Island.”

Mr. Hanover encouraged Island residents to apply for employment with the Steamship Authority. “In the past, it has been difficult to find qualified people at the terminals, and at the airport,” he said.

Mr. Hanover responded sharply to a question about the recent increase in the discounted automobile excursion rates for Island residents from $61 to $63 for a round-trip in the off-season.

“You get a hell of a deal, whether you think so or not,” Mr. Hanover said. “This was a dollar [each way] in four years. I don’t find that substantial.”

Mr. Hanover also addressed a question about the new hybrid freight vessel, to be named Woods Hole, from Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Markets, regarding the decision to build a single-ender as opposed to a double-ender, so the boat does not have to turn around in Vineyard Haven Harbor. SSA officials have said a single-ender is more versatile because it can be used on the Nantucket route.

“I made that decision,” Mr. Hanover said. “I wanted to save $20 million. It was an economic decision.”

In response to a question from Marie Laursen of Tisbury, Mr. Lamson acknowledged the Steamship Authority spent about $200,000 less than it budgeted for fuel in January.

“How about giving that back?” Ms. Laursen asked.

“I made a recommendation at the January board meeting, and the board members decided unanimously,” Mr. Lamson said, referring to the decision not to rescind the most recent rate hikes. “We’ve already taken steps with some of the money that we’ve saved this year to protect against price increases next year. Most of the saving is going toward unanticipated repair costs in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs.”

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Steamship Authority officials organized the meeting in the wake of a public outcry over rate hikes in the face of dropping fuel costs.

The Woods Hole, now under construction, will cost $40.2 million. – Illustration courtesy of the Steamship Authority

Steamship Authority (SSA) general manager Wayne Lamson and Martha’s Vineyard boatline member Marc Hanover will provide an opportunity for Islanders to air their concerns and ask questions about boatline policies at a community meeting, scheduled to begin at 6 pm, at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night.

The SSA agreed to host a community meeting following complaints that the boatline was not in touch with Island residents. The catalyst was a series of rate increases that took effect in January. Nearly 3,000 people, most of them residents or seasonal property owners, according to organizers, signed an online petition asking the SSA to roll back or suspend the hikes in the face of falling fuel prices.

The fare hikes included an increase in standard passenger fares on Martha’s Vineyard routes from $8 to $8.50, and a $2 hike in the discounted round-trip excursion vehicle rate. Critics charged the SSA has overestimated fuel costs, and question whether more than $100 million in capital projects will trigger substantial rate increases over the next decade.

“The meeting is open to anybody, and anyone who has questions or concerns can come,” Mr. Hanover, an Oak Bluffs businessman, said.

“I haven’t had anyone say to me they can’t afford the dollar,” he said, referring to the $1 round-trip increase in the cost of passenger tickets. “But I have had people concerned about what’s going to happen with rates with all this proposed work being done, particularly in Woods Hole. People need to know that.”

Mr. Hanover, and SSA managers, will face some skeptics at the community meeting. Todd Rebello, an Oak Bluffs businessman and former selectman, organized the online petition. He said he hopes the meeting is not an exercise in futility.

“I think they’re doing what they have to do because they came under fire,” Mr. Rebello said. “I hope this isn’t an exercise. I hope they actually listen to people.”

Mr. Rebello said he still hopes to hold the SSA accountable for its budgeting decisions on fuel costs at the end of the year, when the costs are known, but he said many people now are focusing on the new terminal and the new office headquarters.

“This debate has clearly moved on from the fuel issue,” Mr. Rebello said. “They hold the purse strings. They desperately need money. They would like to retire debt so they can clear the balance sheet to take on all this new debt. This is a process to do everything they can to have these monies available so they can use them for the early stages of design for this project,” he said, referring to the plans for a new terminal and offices. “They’re not about to turn back now. Management is building themselves brand-new offices. They’re all going to get new offices, and we’re going to pay for it.”

New boat, new terminal

The SSA is moving forward with plans to build a new terminal building, an additional boat slip, and a new staging area in Woods Hole, at a projected cost of $61.7 million. Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2016, and the completed project is slated to be ready for the summer season in 2021.

The SSA has awarded a contract to Conrad Shipyard, L.L.C., of Morgan City, La., for construction of a new hybrid freight vessel, to be named Woods Hole. The new boat will carry 385 passengers and up to 10 fully loaded freight trucks, or 55 passenger vehicles. The projected cost is $40.2 million. The new vessel is scheduled to replace the ferry Governor in the spring of 2016.

Also on the drawing board is a new office building for SSA staff, slated for the Palmer Avenue parking facility. The preliminary estimate for the cost of the new office building is $6 million.

Mr. Lamson anticipates many of the questions will focus on the future capital projects, and how they may affect rates.

“We’ll be answering questions, and presenting the plans for the Woods Hole terminal reconstruction project,” Mr. Lamson said. “Why it is needed, how much it’s going to cost, how it’s going to get paid for. We’re going to go over the feasibility study that has been prepared, and we’re going to be putting information on our web site so people have a chance to review the information before the meeting.”

Former SSA Vineyard member J.B. Riggs Parker of Chilmark is among those who are concerned about SSA decision-making. In an editorial published Dec. 17, 2014, “MVC planner, not climate czar needed,”

Mr. Parker argued for the SSA terminal to be moved down Beach Road beyond the R.M. Packer Co. complex so that cars and trucks would disembark in two possible directions — to Oak Bluffs or back to Tisbury.

In its place, he said, the town would have an opportunity to create “a charming, income-producing town marina.”

“My concern is not that the Woods Hole terminal idea is wrong or unnecessary,” Mr. Parker said in an email to The Times Monday. “It is that Woods Hole is only half the issue, and it may not even be the right half. If Woods Hole is made more functional and attractive, more people will come. But no equivalent planning has been done for our end. The increased traffic, the longer trucks, and related growth will just be poured onto Water Street and Five Corners. And what do we get? Another ticket booth. Not enough. It is time to do some serious planning on the Vineyard end.”

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The removal of a covered walkway and additional travel and check-in lanes are intended to improve vehicle traffic flow.

This architectural drawing shows the reconfigured parking lot at the Steamship Authority Vineyard Haven terminal. – Drawing courtesy of SSA

The town of Tisbury and the Steamship Authority (SSA) have agreed on a plan to reconfigure the staging lot at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal. The changes are designed to alleviate traffic backups during ferry arrival and departure times. Proposed changes include an additional ticket booth for vehicle drivers to check in, removal of the covered walkway along Water Street, and a redesign of the pickup and drop-off areas.

In October, SSA officials began to meet regularly with a committee of Tisbury officials appointed to examine traffic issues. The members included Selectman Tristan Israel, planning board members Dan Seidman and Benjamin Robinson, Police Lieutenant Eerik Meisner, and Bob Breth, owner of Martha’s Bicycle Rental at Five Corners.

Mr. Seidman said the addition of a second booth for checking in vehicles during peak traffic periods was a key improvement. “That should help with the circulation coming from Five Corners,” Mr. Seidman said. “A lot of times you will see a truck partially turned in, and that hangs up everybody.”

Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, agreed. “It takes one or two trucks, that’s all it takes for things to back up on Water Street, and eventually it begins to impact Five Corners,” he said.

Terminals in both booths will be hard-wired. Currently, the ticket taker in the single booth depends on a wireless connection, which has caused disruptions in the past.

At busy times, a second attendant equipped with a handheld electronic unit now checks vehicles into the waiting areas, but that has not solved the problem of traffic backups.

“We’ve always had the ability to have a second lane,” Mr. Lamson said. “We thought it would be better if we provide two dedicated lanes there, and two booths. The computers and the scanner are going to be hard-wired.”

Staffing will vary. “It may not be all the time that we’ll need the two booths, but generally in the morning, and in the summer on peak days,” Mr. Lamson said.

Even on the best of days, Five Corners can be difficult to navigate. Add a backup from the SSA lot, and through-traffic movement along State and Beach Roads slows to a crawl as drivers wait to turn onto Water Street.

“I thought we’d resolved it earlier, but it’s still an issue,” said Marc Hanover, the Martha’s Vineyard SSA member. “It happens infrequently, but when it does, it’s a real pain. This should eliminate it completely.”

On Wednesday morning in midwinter, traffic waiting to check in at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal backed up onto Water Street. — Photo by Steve Myrick
On Wednesday morning in midwinter, traffic waiting to check in at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal backed up onto Water Street. — Photo by Steve Myrick

No more shelter

The redesign also call for removal of the shingled passenger shelter over the sidewalk along Water Street. The sidewalk will be moved closer to the street, eliminating three parking spaces next to the right travel lane of Water Street. Those spaces are currently restricted to 10 minutes of parking for pickup and drop-off. Architectural drawings show four new shade trees and landscaping along the new sidewalk location, with a sloped bank where the elevated part of the split sidewalk now exists.

Eliminating the outside temporary parking spots will create space to add a second traffic lane between the angled parking spots inside the lot.

“The shelter is in disrepair; it either needs work or needs to be torn down,” Mr. Hanover said. “It makes sense to put two lanes through that parking area. There’s a real bottleneck when there’s only one lane.”

SSA and traffic committee members said they are not concerned about the net loss of the temporary parking spaces.

“I see people doing other things than picking up in those spots,” Mr. Seidman said. “By creating two lanes, for people who are actually picking up people from the ferry, it should make everything move more smoothly in that area.”

“From our experience, it’s used by a lot of others, and not so much for pickup and drop-off,” Mr. Lamson said. “Although there’s a loss of three parking spaces, we think that overall these changes will make for smoother traffic circulation through the area.”

There are no plans to change the current queuing lanes for passengers or trucks.

The SSA and the traffic committee plan to present the proposed changes to Tisbury selectmen on Tuesday, March 3. The SSA plans to issue a request for bids in late March, and expect work can be completed by mid-May, according to Mr. Lamson.

Beach plan

While it is not outlined in the current plan, Mr. Lamson said the SSA has heard concerns about the beach frontage adjacent to the parking lot, which includes a sidewalk, benches, and a gazebo that provides a scenic view of the harbor and is popular with the public.

“We’re looking into that to make sure our employees understand that the maintenance of that beach area, cleaning the litter, the trash, all that, needs to be kept up,” Mr. Lamson said. “We need to do a better job of that. We’re going to look into the shape of the gazebo, and see whether that needs to be replaced.”

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Todd Rebello, an Oak Bluffs businessman and former selectmen, makes his case to audience members for repeal of recent Steamship Authority rate hikes. – Photo by Steve Myrick

The Steamship Authority (SSA) met Tuesday, and took no action in response to an online petition signed by nearly 3,000 people that called on the boatline members to rescind or suspend rate hikes for passenger tickets, Islander excursion rates, and mainland parking that went into effect Jan. 1. About 10 people traveled from the Vineyard to attend the authority’s regular monthly meeting in Woods Hole and make the case for rollbacks in the face of falling fuel prices.

Steamship Authority board members fielded questions from ferry riders Tuesday morning in Woods Hole.
Steamship Authority board members fielded questions from ferry riders Tuesday morning in Woods Hole.

The SSA approved the 2015 operating budget, which included rate hikes, using an estimated cost of $95 per barrel for oil. The price of oil has since plunged to about half that cost.

“This is now creating a multimillion-dollar surplus, and thus should be reason enough to suspend or repeal the current rate increase,” said the petition launched by Todd Rebello, a former Oak Bluffs selectman and businessman.

SSA chairman Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, the Martha’s Vineyard member, called for a discussion of the petition as the first item of business, in order to provide ample opportunity for those in attendance to discuss the issue.

SSA general manager Wayne Lamson presented the members with a management report that outlined staff arguments against any rate change. Mr. Lamson said the SSA staff had reviewed current oil-price forecasts. He cited the Wall Street Journal, which predicts prices ranging from $47.15 to $70 per barrel, and the Kiplinger Letter, which forecasts oil will be trading at $70 to $75 by spring.

“Assuming crude oil prices average $65 per barrel in 2015, the authority will effectively spend an estimated $2,600,000 less in vessel fuel costs this year than the amount originally projected,” he said.

He said any fuel savings would be used for other projects, including work at the Vineyard Haven facility, repair of the Oak Bluffs dock, and dry-dock maintenance of the Island Home, which would cost more than previously estimated. Unbudgeted cost increases totaled $1,335,000, he said.

“Given the current uncertainty of fuel prices through the remainder of 2015 and the need to cover additional unbudgeted vessel and terminal repair costs of $1,335,000 from contracts awarded at the end of 2014, the staff is not recommending any changes to the rate increases previously approved by the board in October,” Mr. Lamson said in his recommendation to the members, which he read aloud at the meeting.

Petition politics

Mr. Rebello spoke to the issue at the meeting. He said about 1,700 people from Martha’s Vineyard, about 400 people from Nantucket, and about 300 people who don’t live here year-round but have ties to the Island signed the petition.

“I noticed a name that showed up on the petition yesterday,” Mr. Rebello said. “Tristan Israel, chairman of the all-Island board of selectmen, and a selectman in Tisbury. Greg Coogan, a selectman in Oak Bluffs, and Richard Knabel, a selectman in West Tisbury — they see validity in this petition.”

He said the Steamship Authority board and staff distorted and mislead Vineyard residents about fuel-cost projections. He addressed Mr. Hanover directly, referring to comments Mr. Hanover made during a meeting of the Dukes County Commission on Jan. 14.

“You made statements that the SSA hasn’t raised rates in four years,” Mr. Rebello said. “I’m not going to say that’s a lie, I’m going to say you misspoke. You don’t realize that in all the spin, you’ve raised the same rates.”

“I don’t buy your argument,” Mr. Hanover responded. “You’re framing it wrong again. The only people that benefit from anything that’s done here are the ratepayers.”

“You have dug in your heels,” Mr. Rebello said. “We will yell louder from here forward. If you take the savings on the fuel, it’s more than enough to cover the shortfall.”

Mr. Rebello took aim at $100 million worth of capital costs over the next five years, to include purchase of a new ferry, a new terminal, and office buildings in Woods Hole.

“If you build an office building in Falmouth, that’s not going to affect the way I travel on this boat,” Mr. Rebello said. “Be straightforward with people. Public trust is everything.”

Among several people speaking at the meeting was Tom Hodgson of West Tisbury.

“People on the Vineyard are increasingly stressed by the high cost of travel back and forth,” Mr. Hodgson said. “If they want to go to their child’s off-Island games, it’s costing them upwards of $100 just to get from here to there. It’s a real expense that has a serious impact on people.”

Marie Laursen of Tisbury questioned why the SSA spends money on advertising.

“The reason for all this expansion is the Steamship Authority is simply responding to demand,” Ms. Laursen said. “You are creating the demand, and using that as a basis on which to build business. You’re adding car rentals; that’s got nothing to do with running a ferry.”

Mr. Lamson said the SSA will receive income from renting counter space to rental-car companies, which may help hold down future rate increases.

At the beginning, and at the end of the meeting, SSA board members thanked Vineyard residents for coming to the meeting.

“I want to thank you all very much,” Mr. Hanover said.

On Tuesday, the members of the Steamship Authority (SSA) met in Woods Hole for their monthly business meeting, and politely listened to the backers of an online petition who have called on the SSA to repeal or suspend rate hikes that went into effect on New Year’s Day. The members, on the recommendation of boatline management, took no action on the request.

The petitioners made the case that the cost of fuel was one of the factors in the SSA’s need to raise an additional $1.9 million in revenue in the new year to cover increased operating costs projected for 2015, which also included vessel maintenance, employee salaries, health care benefits, and pension benefits. The drop in fuel costs, they argued, undercut the need for rate hikes.

Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said that if the authority does end up with a larger surplus than anticipated next year, the extra money will automatically flow into the SSA’s special-purpose funds to be used to pay for the cost of its capital projects, which will help keep rates lower in the future. Big projects in the pipeline that need to be paid for include a $40 million boat and a $60 million reconstruction of the Woods Hole terminal.

Petition backers pointed to their success in gathering almost 3,000 signatures. It is an impressive number and indicative of the power of social media to rally people to a cause, but their success should come as no surprise. Who would not want to see SSA fares drop? Or for that matter, plane fares, cable bills, grocery prices, and the cost of an ice cream cone in the summer?

These petitioners are going after the wrong fix. It would be as if a heart surgeon asked a patient who gets no exercise and eats sausage morning, noon, and night to cut back on the doughnuts at breakfast — it is not a matter of if, but when and where the future clog will occur.

SSA fare hikes are part of a never-ending cycle with no end in sight. And there is nothing in the past history of the SSA to suggest that had this hike not gone into effect, there would not be one in the future.

What is the solution? One petition signer called on the SSA to give year-round Island residents a break at the expense of tourists and seasonal residents. These would be the same seasonal residents — let’s call them the Island’s golden geese — that support our schools, paid for our $50 million hospital built without one Island tax dollar, and who subsidize our discounted excursion fares to the tune of more than 60 percent of the allocated costs, according to an SSA analysis.

Another petitioner suggested limiting the number of vehicles, to slow the growth of Island traffic. Of course, that would mean fewer geese on the ferries and a bigger budget hole that could only be fixed with a rate hike.

An online petition may provide a barometer of sorts, but it provides no basis on which to run a boatline, or any business. That takes planning and careful analysis, not just of immediate circumstances but of future trends. The last serious planning effort was a short-lived exercise that began in January 2001, when then SSA general manager Armand Tiberio presented an 11-page outline titled “SSA Future Ferry Transportation Service Model, a framework for discussion,” to the members.

In Mr. Tiberio’s model, ferry operations to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket would have become part of a larger transportation network in which short-term Island visitors would be pressed to leave their cars on the mainland in favor of fast ferry transportation to the islands. Mr. Tiberio described the service model as an integrated approach that balanced concerns over growth and cars on both islands with a need for the SSA to address rising operating and maintenance costs, aging vessels, and a growing year-round population’s transportation needs. Sound familiar?

Mr. Tiberio’s proposals were designed to shift the transportation focus of the boatline from vehicles to passengers, to make wider use of barging of petroleum products, and to use off-Cape ports, in particular New Bedford, in the reorganized service plan.

Nantucket member Grace Grossman was unwilling to consider change, and skillfully generated vehement opposition to any model that included the port of New Bedford, in the process scuttling any significant discussion of that plan or any other. The political blowback was an irritated legislature’s decision to give New Bedford a seat on the SSA board. File that one under unintended consequences.

Mr. Lamson saw the scalding Mr. Tiberio took. A careful and considerate man, he is focused on running the boatline, not making waves. The only remnant of Mr. Tiberio’s plan is private seasonal New Bedford fast-ferry service: a stepchild if there ever was one, generally ignored by the SSA, not embraced as it should be as part of a wider model.

Instead of trying to claw back a few dollars, or shift costs, the petitioners, and Island officials, ought to be pressing the SSA to hire a competent consultant to take a serious look at its operating model, which now is based on big boats and fare hikes whenever it predicts a budget shortfall. It is time to look decades down the watery road.

Five Corners remains a clogged transportation artery. Is it possible to move the terminal up Beach Road? The Martha’s Vineyard Commission first raised that option, and ought to apply some of its transportation-planning horsepower to another look. The South Coast Rail project would extend service to New Bedford. How would that fit into a transportation model? What will be the cost of the next big boat, and what might be an alternative? It is time for the SSA to undertake a serious and far-reaching look at its service model and how to best accommodate growth, which all trends point to as unavoidable in the future.

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Steamship Authority traffic in November and for the first 11 months of 2014 increased over the same period in 2013.

The Island Home will not make her Monday morning run. File photo by Steve Myrick

In all categories, Steamship Authority traffic in November and for the first 11 months of 2014 increased over the same period in 2013, according to a business summary presented Tuesday at a meeting of the authority members.

The boatline carried 128,397 passengers in November 2014, up 1.4 percent over the previous year, and 2,169,327 year to date, an increase of 1.1 percent over 2013.

The boatline carried 12,656 regular-fare automobiles and 14,433 excursion autos for a total of 27,089 in November, a 1.3 percent increase over the previous year, and 367,461 autos year to date, a 1.3 percent increase over 2013.

Truck traffic was up 0.5 percent in November, and 1.7 percent year to date over 2013.

The SSA lost $2,012,236 in November, which was $206,172 higher than projected in the 2014 operating budget, due in part to $349,541 in unexpected maintenance expenses, management said.

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Marc Hanover told the Dukes County commissioners there will be no rollback of recent rate hikes.

On January 14, County clerk Joseph Sollitto (foreground) administered the oath of office to county commissioners (left to right) John Alley, Christine Todd, Leon Brathwaite, David Holway, and Gretchen Tucker Underwood. Commissioners Leonard Jason, Jr., and Tristan Israel are hidden from view. – Photo by Steve Myrick

Martha’s Vineyard Steamship Authority member Marc Hanover defended the authority’s business operations and capital improvement plans at a meeting of the Dukes County commission, his appointing authority, last week. Mr. Hanover, an Oak Bluffs businessman, also soundly rejected a call for the boatline to roll back or suspend rate hikes that took effect on Jan. 1.

Mr. Hanover offered an annual report and responded to questions from members of the audience who presented signatures gathered on an online petition signed by more than 3,000 people, calling for repeal of recent price increases.

Referring to a Letter to the Editor published in The Times on Dec. 3, signed by Oak Bluffs businessman and former selectman Todd Rebello, Mr. Hanover said, “Statements were made that net operating income disappears, plugs holes, and there are millions in surpluses. These statements are irresponsible, ridiculous. It angers me that somebody can go out and make false statements like this; it’s ridiculous.”

Mr. Hanover dismissed some of the SSA critics as uninformed. “The petition, I would have signed it myself, if I wasn’t aware of the reality of the situation,” Mr. Hanover said. “A lot of people have signed it. A lot of people that have signed it have no idea what the Steamship Authority is. I disagree with them.”

County commissioner Tristan Israel, a Tisbury selectman, asked Mr. Hanover to consider the effect of capital projects on ticket prices.

“The Steamship Authority makes a value judgement to build a $38 million boat, and on the heels of that, they make a value judgement to build a $60 million terminal in Woods Hole,” he said. “Our rates have been going up and up over the past decade. The petition is showing people’s frustration.”

Marie Laursen of Tisbury told Mr. Hanover ratepayers need a break from increased costs.

“The point of the petition is to address the rate increases,” Ms. Laursen said. “Is there any possibility that those rate increases could be put on hold temporarily, until $100 million worth of projects in the pipeline get discussed, and how that affects our rates in the future?”

“We need a break. We travel much more often than summer visitors. We’re going back and forth a lot more,” she said.

Mr. Hanover pointed to poor Island attendance at SSA public meetings. He said he is disappointed that few people attend the two SSA monthly business meetings held each year on Martha’s Vineyard. County commissioners agreed to facilitate an informational meeting on the Island, at a time and place yet to be determined.

Other business

The first county commission meeting of the new year began with a swearing-in ceremony. County clerk Joseph Sollitto gave the oath of office to county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders, to begin a new six-year term. Then he swore in re-elected county commissioners Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark, Leon Brathwaite and John Alley of West Tisbury, Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs, Mr. Israel of Tisbury, and David Holway of Edgartown. Also sworn in was newly elected commissioner Gretchen Tucker Underwood of Oak Bluffs.

Commissioners elected Mr. Brathwaite chairman, and Ms. Todd vice-chairman.
Mr. Sollitto also thanked retiring Martha’s Vineyard parking clerk Carol Grant for her public service. “I want to compliment, and let the commissioners know, she’s the best parking clerk I’ve worked with in my 34 years,” Mr. Sollitto said. Mr. Sollitto is the hearing officer for disputed tickets.

The commission offered its gratitude. “We’re going to miss you, and I want to thank you on behalf of the commissioners for the work you’ve done over the years,” Mr. Brathwaite said.

Ms. Grant said there will be no interruption in services, as senior financial clerk Donna Michalski assumes the duties of parking clerk.

“Thank you for your support,” Ms. Grant said. “Donna will pick up where I’m leaving off. It should be a nice smooth transition.”

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The MV Island Home leaves port. – File photo by Michael Cummo.

An online petition calling on the Steamship Authority (SSA) to repeal or suspend rate hikes that went into effect on New Year’s Day had garnered more than 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday. Todd Rebello of Oak Bluffs is behind the petition, posted on the MoveOn.org web site.

Mr. Rebello, a businessman and former Oak Bluffs selectman, said the catalyst for his call to action is the recent drop in the cost of oil, but his unhappiness with the boatline is rooted in spending and management decisions that he insists have not been thoroughly vetted with Island ratepayers, who must contend with a high cost of living, and will feel the brunt of future cost increases.

Mr. Rebello pointed to the debt tied to the cost of a new $40 million passenger/vehicle ferry that will serve the Vineyard route and the estimated $60 million reconstruction of the Woods Hole terminal and relocation of the boatline’s administrative offices.

Beginning Jan. 1, the discounted vehicle excursion fare for Island residents, parking rates at Falmouth lots, and passenger fares for all travelers increased.

Prior to an October vote to approve the hikes, Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, told the authority members the hikes were needed to cover increased operating costs projected for 2015, including fuel costs, vessel maintenance, employee salaries, health care benefits, and pension benefits.

In a recent email to The Times, Mr. Lamson pointed to the volatility of fuel prices and ongoing expenses. Mr. Lamson said the 2015 budget projects a net annual income of a little more than $3,000,000, which provides for “a very thin margin of error.”

Mr. Lamson said  if the authority does end up with a larger surplus than anticipated next year, the extra money will automatically flow into the SSA’s special-purpose funds to be used to pay for the cost of its capital projects, which will help keep rates lower in the future.

Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, the SSA’s Martha’s Vineyard member, supports Mr. Lamson’s arguments. In a telephone conversation with The Times Tuesday, Mr. Hanover said any unexpected surpluses would help lower borrowing costs and be reinvested in the boatline. And he noted, “This is the first rate increase in four years.”

Limit fares, traffic

The online petition states: “This past October the Steamship Authority Board voted a rate increase for January 1st 2015. This rate increase was voted to cover anticipated shortfalls in the current fiscal year budget. Included was a budget increase in the fuel oil budget line item of 2.5%. The Authority budgeted nearly $10 million for the current fiscal year for fuel. The fuel and oil markets have declined by roughly 50% since summer. This is now creating a multimillion-dollar surplus and thus should be reason enough to suspend and or repeal the current rate increase.”

Many of those who signed the petition added comments.

A signer identified as Kitty White of Vineyard Haven wrote, “The price increase, for no good reason, works a hardship on the residents of the islands.”

Kevin from Nantucket said, “Come on some of us are just working class trying to get to and from the island to see our friends and family and work.”

Joan Adibi from Edgartown asked for a cutback in rates and cars. “I would also like to see a limit placed on passenger vehicles granted access to Martha’s Vineyard especially during the summer months. Could a fare hike be combined with a slowing of traffic?”

Check in

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Rebello said he began hearing from people in response to a Letter to the Editor he wrote critical of the rate hikes. That prompted him to examine the issue further. He hit upon the idea of an online petition.

“When I fired that online petition up the first of the year, I didn’t expect that it would get the response that it did,” he said. “The first day it was like wildfire.” Mr. Rebello said he has since been receiving calls and emails from people expressing concerns about a host of issues.

Mr. Rebello said he has listened carefully to the SSA’s arguments in favor of the rate hike, and he is not buying them. He said at the same time that the SSA said it would use any surplus to retire debt, it is preparing to take on $100 million in new debt.

Mr. Rebello said there has been a disconnect between major management decisions and the Island ratepayers. “I think people need to have their say,” he said. “They need to be informed and they need to know what it could potentially cost them down the road. And people need to know if we are talking about an expansion that could promote more traffic on the Island. These are valid issues that need to be aired.”

Mr. Rebello said it is time for Vineyard SSA member Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs to reconnect with his constituency and “check in,” perhaps through public hearings, when there are major matters and large capital expenditures. Mr. Rebello said he respects the time commitment made by Mr. Hanover and the other SSA members in what is a thankless public service.

“I don’t want to undermine Marc by any means, but you have to ask these questions and you have to stick your neck out to ask these questions. Marc is not going to be happy with me because I am challenging the Steamship Authority and he is the representative, but I can’t worry about that relationship, as I am reading the testimonials by people signing the petition saying they are really hurting financially on this Island.”

The former selectman and veteran of many political battles said he has no interest in becoming the Island’s next SSA member or in any appointments.

In recent years, SSA board meetings held on the Island have attracted little attention. Asked how that lack of interest squares with his call for SSA public hearings, Mr. Rebello said, “It takes something to spark public interest.”

A windfall

In a telephone conversation late Tuesday, Mr. Hanover said he was not surprised that the petition had attracted thousands of signatures. He said asking people if they want lower SSA rates is akin to asking people if they want lower taxes or lower electric rates — it is pointless and misleading, he said.

Mr. Hanover said he hates rates increases, but they are part of the larger management picture. The notion, he said, that the boatline can lower rates based on a recent drop in oil prices fails to take into account the potential volatility of the market and the fact that the boatline buys most of its fuel in the summer months.

“This is just a windfall with the oil prices, and I have no clue where they are going to be, and neither do the experts,” he said. “They start doing the budget in June and July. Last June oil was at $115 [ a barrel].” Mr. Hanover said the SSA cannot gamble with prices.

He said any surplus will not disappear. “I’ve got Oak Bluffs coming to me for a park and ride; well, that’s not in the budget. I met with the Oak Bluffs planning board, they want all new signage down there. That’s not in the budget. Tisbury is talking about a study, which they haven’t formally asked for, about moving the whole terminal. That’s not in the budget.”

Mr. Hanover said that he regularly briefs the county commission, his appointing authority, and that the SSA holds two public meetings each year on the Vineyard, often poorly attended. Mr. Hanover said he appreciates Mr. Rebello’s call for more communication, and is happy to speak about any of the issues confronting the boatline and ratepayers before any board of selectmen that would like to invite him.