SSA Island show-and-tell was mostly tell

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.

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.”