SSA stats dismal compared with America’s largest ferry service

With more ferries, terminals, and routes, Washington State Ferries endures fewer mechanical cancellations.

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The MV Kennewick, a Washington State Ferries Kwa-di Tabil Class ferry (smallest class in the fleet). At 273-feet 8-inches the class is larger than the largest SSA vessel, the 255-foot MV Island Home. — Courtesy Washington State Ferries

Updated 5 pm

Washington State runs the largest ferry operation in the country, with four times as many terminals, over three times as many routes, and more than twice as many ferries as the Steamship Authority.

At 273 feet, 8 inches, Washington State Ferries’ smallest ferry class, the Kwa-di Tabil class, is 17 feet, four inches longer than the SSA’s largest vessel, the MV Island Home. Two end-to-end MV Martha’s Vineyards (230 feet) would equal Washington State Ferries’ largest class of vessel, Jumbo Mark II, of which there are three.

The sheer size of the vessels and volume of traffic dwarfs the SSA, but so far in 2018, the Martha’s Vineyard ferry service is well ahead of Washington State when it comes to cancellations due to breakdowns.

According to a recent report from Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis, of 5,632 scheduled trips from January to May, Steamship Authority vessels suffered 551 (two of them were on the Nantucket-based MV Gay Head) mechanical cancellations (9.78 percent of trips). For the first quarter of 2018 (January to March, the months available at this point), Washington State Ferries cancelled 116 times for mechanical problems, out of 38,648 trips (0.30 percent), according to Washington State Ferries spokesman Justin Fujioka.

In 2017, out of 22,843 trips, the Steamship Authority suffered 372 mechanical cancellations (1.62 percent). Washington State Ferries sailed 162,736 times and suffered 572 mechanical cancellations (0.35 percent).

In 2016, the numbers were closer for each. Of 22,703 trips, SSA suffered 52 mechanical cancellations (0.229 percent). Washington State Ferries sailed 163,224 times, and had 365 mechanical cancellations (0.22 percent).

Asked if Washington State Ferries experienced a sizable mechanical downtime in recent memory, Fujioka pointed to last year. “We had a very difficult summer 2017,” he wrote in an email, detailing breakdowns from mid-July to early September that included a failed generator, rudder issues, and steering problems.

Steamship Authority brass will travel to Martha’s Vineyard Tuesday to field questions about the recent string of failures aboard the MV Island Home, MV Martha’s Vineyard, and MV Woods Hole, among other vessels, that have inconvenienced many Islanders and led to a social media uproar. The meeting will take place at 4 pm in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center.

At a meeting Monday, Edgartown selectmen voted unanimously to send a letter in support of an independent review of the SSA, which is being requested by Marc Hanover, the Island’s representative to the SSA board.

“Residents have become very concerned as they cannot depend on the ferries,” the letter, signed by all three selectmen, states. “When you have to consider yourself lucky because you were able to get off the Island and then return with no glitches, there is something wrong. The ferries are our lifeline, and you are responsible for making sure that service is available and uninterrupted.”

Michael Donaroma, the board’s chairman and owner of Donaroma’s Nursery, pointed out the impact on businesses. He said a shipment of trees from Maryland was delayed. “I can’t imagine what all the other businesses are going through,” he said.

During the discussion, town administrator Pam Dolby questioned why the SSA would oppose an independent review. “Why wouldn’t you want to figure out what’s going on?” she said. “What are you trying to hide? Something is going on.”

Updated to include information from the board of selectmen. – Ed.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Having ridden the Washington State Ferries I can say with confidence that they do way more with less personnel. Additionally, cars aren’t parked against each other so tight that their doors slam into each other or you can only get out on one side. The amenities are better with quiet rooms for people who need to work and more tvs. Granted it is a much bigger system but it’s still a lifeline as the SSA is supposed to be. We can and should learn a lot from what they are doing right.

  2. I have also enjoyed the Washington State ferry system… it worked perfectly, many more people depend on that system to function properly.
    THIS is who we should have do the review of our SSA.

  3. Let’s compare the Steamship Authority’s auto fare for the seven-mile, 45-min., run from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven with fares of similar auto ferries in the region and country that are also operated year-round.

    1.
    Bridgeport (CT) and Point Jefferson Steamship Ferry (privately run)

    Distance: 18 miles
    Crossing time: 75 min.
    Autos (includes driver), any vehicle under 20’: $62.00

    Price per mile with auto (includes driver): $3.44/mile

    Source: https://www.88844ferry.com/Rates.aspx

    2.
    Cross Sound Ferry (privately run)

    New London (CT) to Orient Point (Long Island)
    Distance: 16 miles
    Crossing time: 80 min.

    Auto (includes driver), any vehicle under 20’: $59

    Price per mile with auto (includes driver): $3.28/mile

    Source: https://www.longislandferry.com/Common/Help.aspx?page=fares

    3.
    Cape May-Lewes Ferry (public)

    Distance: 17 miles
    Time for crossing: 85 minutes
    Auto (includes driver), any vehicle under 20’: $47

    Price per mile with auto (includes driver): $2.76/mile

    Source: https://www.cmlf.com/schedules-fares

    4.
    North Carolina Ferry (public)
    Cedar Island-Ocracoke

    Distance: 22 miles
    Time for crossing: 2 hr 15 minutes
    Auto (includes driver), any vehicle under 20’: $15.00

    Price per mile with auto (includes driver): $.68/mile

    Source: https://www.ncdot.gov/download/transit/ferry/ferryschedule.pdf

    5.
    Washington State Ferries (public)
    Seattle–Bainbridge Island

    Distance: 8.6 miles
    Time for crossing: 35 minutes
    Auto (includes driver), any vehicle under 22’: $18.70

    Price per mile with auto (includes driver): $2.17/mile

    Source: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/pdf/CurrentFares.pdf

    6.
    Steamship Authority (quasi public, partially subsidized by Commonwealth of Massachusetts taxpayers by dint of paying no taxes, including property tax for parking lots/admin buildings/etc.)

    Woods Hole-Vineyard Haven

    Distance: 7 miles
    Time for crossing: 45 minutes
    Auto with driver: $68.50 if vehicle < 17’ + $8.50 for driver = $77; $78.50 if vehicle 17’ – 20’ + $8.50 for driver = $87; winter excursion fares are $25 less

    Price per mile with auto (includes driver): $11.00/mile if under 17’, $12.43/mile if vehicle 17’ – 20’
    (Winter excursion fare: $7.43 if under 17', $8.86/mile if 17'-20')

    Source: https://www.steamshipauthority.com/reservations/fares

    Conclusions:

    The Steamship Authority operates by far and away the most expensive auto ferry service in the country on a per mile basis.

    The SSA's auto rate on a per mile basis exceeds the next highest priced ferry by a factor of 300%, or by a factor of 250% if one compares the SSA's winter excursion rate.

    The Steamship Authority also charges one of the absolute highest auto ferry fares in the country.

    Does the SSA’s level of service reflect this extreme price premium?

    • viewfromtheregion, Thank you for a great analysis of the current costs for other ferry companies.
      All of these services are Coast Guard regulated. It would great to see their staffing levels for both, onboard, parking lot and maintenance. I am sure it would be eye opening.

      I also want to point out that the Washington State ferry service standardizes their boats into classes and then purchases the same boats in a similar class. Here with the SSA, all the boats are different designs which causes increased training and maintenance expenses as well poorer quality. Why? Engineers/Crew/Mechanics have to be trained on each and every boat that is different. It is impossible to inventory parts because they are all different. Let’s stop the insanity of just spend, spend, spend and let’s get rid of this management.

    • Having traveled on all those ferries except the Washington ones, I often think about those heavy differences in fares when back on the SSA. Thanks for posting them here.

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