Online petition calls on Steamship Authority to roll back rate hikes

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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.