SSA board visits Vineyard Haven and gets earful

Improved communication and a fast ferry are among the things Islanders want.


Updated 9 pm

The Steamship Authority needs to do better. That was the clear message from a crowd of about 50 people gathered inside the Katharine Cornell Theater Monday morning for a meeting of the SSA board of directors.

And it wasn’t just the public asking for the SSA to do a better job; members of the board and even the administration themselves acknowledged that improvements are needed.

“We have to rebuild confidence for our customers,” said Marc Hanover, who represents Martha’s Vineyard on the board. “Three boats down at same time can never happen again.”

The meeting follows a month of breakdowns for the ferry line’s largest boats on the Vineyard Haven–Woods Hole run. Exacerbating the missed runs due to mechanical issues were four nor’easters that also forced cancellations.

“I think what [you] have is a communication problem here,” said Jamie Hamlin, a Tisbury resident who described waiting for a ferry with no one providing clear answers of what was going on at the terminal: “Nobody came out of the office. Nobody communicated with people in line. One elderly woman finally went out, and I heard her yelling at the guy in the booth, ‘When is someone going to come out and tell us the boats just aren’t going to run today?’”

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel, using the oft-used “lifeline” comment, told the board that the breakdowns caused people to miss medical appointments, and hurt the Island’s economy. “We depend on management of the Steamship Authority to make it smooth,” he said. “I want to echo what Mr. Hanover said, this can’t happen again.”

“We have a reputation problem here that has damaged the Island for the foreseeable future,” Josh Goldstein, co-owner of the Mansion House Inn, said. He said the SSA needs to to work on getting boats that can operate in poor weather conditions: “The frequency of those cancellations has increased dramatically.”

Stephen Araujo, a truck driver for John Keane Excavation, who often has to use the ferry for business, said he missed 12 trips as a result of the problems with ferries. He urged board members to get on the boats and talk to crew members because morale is low. “Unless you come and talk to these people, you don’t know what they’re feeling or how they feel,” he said, before leaving to catch a ferry. “We have to do better. Everybody has to get off their high horse and get this ball rolling again.”

Araujo did praise general manager Robert Davis for riding on the ferries and talking to passengers. “He stepped up. For three weeks he got his face out there, and he got kicked in the knees. He got kicked everywhere he could, and he stood up and held his head high.”

Fred Condon, another Island resident, told the board that it needs to come up with more of a vision, and action plans. He urged them to look at the service from the customer’s point of view.

Condon was one of several people who talked about how well-received the SeaStreak’s fast ferry was during the recent ferry problems. The fast ferry provided on-the-hour service for walk-on passengers, making the trip in 20 minutes, compared with the 45 minutes it takes a typical SSA ferry.

“You can’t just say it’s too expensive,” he told the board. “My time is worth money. I would pay extra money if I could save a half-hour.”

Tisbury selectman Melinda Loberg thanked the board for moving its meeting to Vineyard Haven, though several other speakers pointed out that a 10 am meeting wasn’t the best time for working people to attend.

Loberg said the SSA needs to do more to help the town with a buildup of sand and silt caused by SSA ferries in the inner harbor. She also advocated for the fast ferry service.

“I can tell you the one lesson learned here on the Vineyard is we really like the fast ferry,” she said. “We really like the idea of passengers being able to make a 20-minute journey.”

Davis said the fast ferry service is on the list of things to talk about, though he mentioned, as he has previously, that on the Nantucket run, the tickets for fast ferry service are double what a customer pays for a slow ride to that island from Hyannis. “It is something that we’ve heard loud and clear that people want us to at least investigate this,” Davis said.

After the public comment period, Robert Jones, who represents Hyannis on the board, said, “We’re listening … If there’s a common thread, it’s communication.”

During its business meeting, which came ahead of the public comments, Hanover proposed hiring a consultant to look at operational discipline, information technology issues, public communications, management structure, and strengthening the fleet maintenance strategy.

But Davis asked for time for his staff to work on issues, including hiring a communications director and improving IT. He conceded the administration may need a consultant on a maintenance program.

Elizabeth Gladfelter, a Falmouth representative on the board, hinted that the lack of previous problems for the ferry line is why recent problems are magnified. “I think the reason things are so frustrating is you’re used to a very good service,” she said.

Moira Tierney, New Bedford’s representative, agreed with Hanover that an outside look is needed. “I’m not so sure that management’s review of its own operations at this point in time is the precise way to go,” she said.

With at least three of the five board members leaning against Hanover’s proposal, he instead made a motion that was unanimously approved, giving Davis and his staff two weeks to come up with a plan on how it will fix the issues that have plagued the SSA.

Davis said in a brief interview after the meeting that he will likely issue his report at the May 15 meeting on Nantucket.

In an interview after the meeting, Hanover said he was shocked at the response by Gladfelter and by Robert Ranney, who represents Nantucket, who told the audience that the other island serviced by the SSA can sometimes go three days or more without service.

“I was surprised they didn’t think we have a problem. Well, they think we have a problem, but they think management can fix it,” Hanover said. “I’m not anti-management at all, but they’re too busy putting out fires.”

There’s not enough planning going on, Hanover said. Still, Hanover blamed himself for the failure of convincing others that a consultant needs to be hired. “I was working on this for the past two weeks, and got the final proposal at 9:15 and handed it out at 9:30 am,” he said. “That’s on me.”

While Hanover expressed the need for urgency before the busy summer season, Ranney cast doubt on the possibility that anything could be done by then, saying it would be a mistake “to distract” the SSA’s leadership during the high season.

Joseph Carter, an Oak Bluffs resident, said the SSA needs to look within at its management. “To me there’s a failure somewhere of leadership, and I’m not saying you, but where is it?” he said.

Davis, after giving a report that provided the exhaustive details of the mechanical breakdowns of the MV Martha’s Vineyard, MV Woods Hole, and MV Island Home that began March 3, apologized to the Island community and commuters, saying the Steamship Authority is “embarrassed with our failings these past few weeks.”

One of those ferries, the Martha’s Vineyard, which underwent a refurbishment that exceeds $18 million, is now out of service until May 3. The ferry was taken to Fairhaven, where SSA crews and Senesco, the contractor, will go through punch-list items as simple as fixing a ceiling tile to dealing with some of the foul odors that have plagued its restroom venting system, Davis said. For now, the Woods Hole is taking its place in the schedule, and the MV Sankaty is taking the place of the Woods Hole on freight runs, he said.

It wasn’t just the ferry breakdowns that were on the minds of Island customers. Some turned out to criticize the new RFID card system, which requires customers to buy separate cards for individual family members at five-trip intervals.

“I’m going to have to get a separate wallet for the cards,” one woman said. “If you’re contemplating changes like this, find a better way to communicate about it [ahead of time].”

Those cards are expected to arrive this week, and will be used beginning May 15, Davis said.

In other business, the SSA board approved paying SeaStreak $126,500 for the nine days of service provided by the fast ferry at the end of March while three ferries were out of service at various times. Davis is allowed to award a contract for $100,000 or less, but needed the board’s OK because it exceeded that threshold.

SeaStreak was praised by Tierney for its willingness to quickly send the Whaling City Express from New Jersey to help out the SSA. SeaStreak provides service from New Bedford to both islands during the summer.

Work continues on the reconstruction of slips at the Woods Hole terminal. The remainder of the terminal foundation has been removed, and the contractor continues to work on driving piles for temporary dolphins, a manmade structure used to guide berthing the ferries.

After a Water Street property owner complained of feeling tremors and vibrations, the SSA began monitoring at its property line, Davis said.

Because of delays, Slip 2 won’t be ready in time for the summer season, he said.

Burnham Associates was awarded a $129,000 contract as the low bidder for emergency repairs to a damaged dolphin at Slip 2. A temporary fix will likely remain in place until the fall, Davis said.

Also discussed briefly by the board was the possibility of transporting solid waste off-Island by barge. Steven Sayers, general counsel, said a report is expected soon on the feasibility of removing construction and demolition materials by barge as well.

Investigating freight service to the Island from New Bedford is also continuing, Sayers said. A meeting with MassDevelopment, which is overseeing what to do with State Pier in New Bedford, should provide more information on what’s possible there, Sayers told the board.

A draft report by the New Bedford Port Authority indicates that more ferry service is supported, but not necessarily freight service.

Tierney pointed out there are other possible locations for freight service in New Bedford if State Pier is ruled out.

Updated with details from Monday’s meeting. – Ed.