Woods Hole, Vineyard at odds over 5:30 freight

Public hearing shows division between two ports over early-morning crossings.

Woods Hole resident Nat Trumbull, left, says the growth of freight traffic to the Vineyard is "unmanageable." - George Brennan

There were two distinct sides — one urging an end to early-morning freight runs out of Woods Hole as a noisy nuisance, and the other insisting that those runs are essential to keeping the flow of goods and services to Martha’s Vineyard during the busy summer season.

The Steamship Authority’s board will make one of the two sides unhappy sometime in October when the five-member board considers the 2020 ferry schedule.

At a public hearing Monday at Falmouth High School, about 75 people turned out to talk about the schedule. The hearing was prompted by a petition from 50 Woods Hole residents who say the early-morning runs result in sleep deprivation as people are woken up by the rumble of trucks headed to the Woods Hole terminal.

Steve Sayers, who retired as general counsel for the SSA, moderated the public hearing. The SSA board will consider public and written comments before deciding on the schedule, most likely at their October meeting, Sayers said. “We will be working hard on this matter after this public hearing,” he said.

Three members — Marc Hanover, Robert Jones, and Kathryn Wilson — were on hand to hear the topic debated, as was SSA general manager Robert Davis and other SSA officials.

The 5:30 am ferries have operated in both directions during the summer season from May through October since 2012, Sayers said. The 5:30 runs were part of fall and spring schedules, but those were eliminated a few years ago.

The public hearing started slowly and with technical difficulties, as a microphone cut in and out, providing the type of frustration Woods Hole residents say they feel from morning truck traffic rousing them from their slumber.

“Why can’t New Bedford be used as a port?” said Woods Hole resident Margaret Fitzelle, who said she’s worried there will be a tragedy as her granddaughter waits for a school bus on the busy and dangerous Woods Hole Road. “Do we wait for this tragedy? … Fuel trucks are bombing down Woods Hole Road. It is a nuisance. We are not the nuisance. Try New Bedford.”

New Bedford came up repeatedly throughout the nearly two-hour session. It’s an idea most recently studied in 2017 by the SSA. It was also tried in 2000 and 2001, and though it lost money, the SSA wanted to take it over, Sayers said. New Bedford would not allow the use of State Pier, he said, and the service was discontinued.

Nat Trumbull, a Woods Hole resident, said an unidentified man in the audience has an idea to provide autonomous freight service out of New Bedford, but offered few specifics about price. “Please don’t close the welcome door to initiatives such as this that would possibly supply a viable solution,” Trumbull said. “Vineyarders don’t believe this, but this would help you and provide a diversified freight route.” Freight to the Vineyard is growing at a longstanding rate of 4 percent per year, a 50 percent increase over a decade, he said. “At some point this is unmanageable.” 

Earlier in the hearing, Tisbury selectman Jim Rogers, one of about a dozen Vineyarders who made the trip over for the meeting, including his colleague selectman Jeff Kristal, town administrator Jay Grande, and Dukes County commissioner Leon Brathwaite, said New Bedford isn’t the answer. Rogers asked people in the audience to remember the number of people in Falmouth who work for the SSA. Moving freight would certainly cost the town jobs. “New Bedford is not even close to being reasonable. We would have more canceled trips,” he said, because Buzzards Bay is treacherous. “It would not be a reliable mode of transportation. It was tried for many years, and didn’t work.”

Peter Goodale of Vineyard Haven agreed. The distance between New Bedford and the Vineyard would make it “exceedingly more difficult,” he said. “We do need every boat we’ve got,” Goodale said.

Rogers said SSA needs to be profitable, or the port towns, like Falmouth, could be on the hook, based on the legislation that established the ferry service and requires the port towns to make up operating deficits. The Island needs the freight service, Rogers said. “We can’t help the fact that people like Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s much busier than what we as longtime residents would have envisioned growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. That’s the way it is, and hopefully we can all come to common ground.”

Several Island businessmen urged the SSA board to keep the early morning ferries, particularly for fuel trucks that have difficulty navigating the Island’s narrow streets.

“The reason we go over so early is for as little disruption on the Island as possible,” Brian Hughes, a fuel distributor, said. That seemed to touch a nerve with some of the Woods Hole residents in the audience.

“What about the disruption to the Woods Holians that have to deal with the trucks coming so you can have your gas?” Becky Connors, manager of Sands of Time motel, said. “We want to work together with you, but what’s next? A 4 o’clock boat? A 3 o’clock boat? A 2 o’clock boat so you that guys don’t have to be disrupted?” Connors said she’s forced to use air conditioning to block the sounds from passing trucks, and the noise has affected her business, with customers complaining: “I appreciate that you guys have needs. We also have needs.”

John Leite III of JWL Transport also caused a bit of friction when he suggested that people who purchased homes along the State Road should have known what they were getting into when they bought them. “I guess I feel badly for the plight that some of the folks who signed the petition suffer from, but I think it was a choice that was made by them as an individual,” he said. “If there is a business in effect and you move in, then you’ve accepted that.”

Leite said there are similar issues on the Island, but residents understand it. “We need that to be able to survive over there as a community,” he said. “It would be a real hardship for us, financially and otherwise, if we were to lose those trips.”

Peter Francis, who works for a food service company, said his trucks roll on that first ferry to supply the hospital and schools. “I’m on the Island working to better my family, better my community, and I stand to say I’m in support of [5:30 am ferries],” he said.

Woods Hole resident Judy Laster asked the SSA to find a realistic solution. “We in Woods Hole, we’re not against truck drivers, we’re not against people on Martha’s Vineyard, but we also don’t have to just suck it up and take it,” she said.

Woods Hole resident Eugenie Kuffler went a tad off topic to complain about “disfiguration” of the terminal area with the new third slip, but brought it back around saying the terminal project would force the SSA to attract more vehicles to pay for it. “The bridges, the roads, and the towns of Falmouth and Woods Hole will continue to be overwhelmed by traffic,” she said.

Dan Smith’s comment was short and to the point. “What makes this difficult, with respect specifically to freight traffic, is that the Vineyard derives almost all the benefit and Woods Hole receives all the hardship.”

Jonathan Goldman of Woods Hole called some of the public comments made by Vineyarders “an across-the-fence sneer,” and described the relationship as “contentious.” He urged Woods Hole and the Vineyard to work together toward a regional solution.

“Frankly, up until this moment because of the contentious nature between Woods Hole village and the SSA, we don’t have any trust anymore. We need to establish trust,” he said. “It has to do with well-being. Do you wish your neighbor well-being?”

The public comment period remains open, though the administration is attempting to wrap things up soon, Sayers said. Written comments are being accepted at schedules@steamshipauthority.com.