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.
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.
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.