SSA plans public meeting on Martha’s Vineyard Tuesday

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 soon be added to the route. — Illustration courtesy of the SSA

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.”