The recent public hearing on the 2020 freight schedule for the Steamship Authority was a bit of an exercise in futility. It did little to inform next month’s vote by the SSA board, which will consider whether to continue 5:30 am freight service to and from Vineyard Haven during the busy summer months.
The SSA has already made concessions. The SSA has eliminated the early morning ferries in spring and fall. They’ve reduced the size of trucks allowed on those first ferries. And they’ve asked their early morning customers not to arrive more than a half-hour before the scheduled departure.
Still, they get complaints, even though the terminal is at the end of a state highway where there should be an expectation of commercial traffic at all hours.
It’s hard to believe that some of this year’s pushback isn’t left over from the controversial terminal project in Woods Hole. Residents of Woods Hole village don’t like the design that the SSA came up with for the new terminal, and they don’t like the answers they’ve gotten about making the terminal smaller, or moving it to make sure it doesn’t block the view of Little Harbor from Crane Street bridge. (The SSA has essentially said any design will block the view, because of where the building has to be situated and regulations that require it be built 17 feet above flood level.)
So this year when the SSA published its proposed 2020 schedule, a requirement of the legislation known as the Enabling Act, 50 Woods Hole residents signed a petition to force the public hearing about the schedule.
We heard some of these complaints before. Trucks are too loud, they use so-called Jake braking (a compression system that mimics the sound of a gunshot), and the trucks speed down Woods Hole Road. One West Falmouth resident went so far as to blame the SSA for traffic she hears from Route 28, as if the only trucks coming early to Cape Cod are headed to Woods Hole. Falmouth has lots of other businesses that receive early morning deliveries, for the very same reason that trucks want to get to Martha’s Vineyard early — they want to avoid heavy congestion on roads not built to handle the flow of traffic.
It’s interesting that there is a 5:30 am ferry from Vineyard Haven, too, a terminal property closer to residential homes than the Woods Hole terminal, and we hear no complaints from Island residents about that.
It’s also interesting that Woods Hole residents are quick to suggest pushing the problem to another community — in this case, New Bedford. Throughout last week’s hearing, New Bedford was brought up repeatedly as a solution. Lost in those comments is the need for infrastructure in New Bedford, and the cost that shipments from New Bedford would add to goods and services for Vineyarders, because of the length of the ferry runs that would be required.
But even if New Bedford were an option, no one stepped forward when the SSA revived the idea of a freight service in 2017. Nat Trumbull, the Woods Hole resident who organized the petition drive that prompted the public hearing, told the SSA board there was a mystery man in the audience, whom he did not identify, who was exploring the idea of providing the service. But we heard no firm ideas about this man’s proposal, and there were certainly no specifics about how much it would cost. Approached by a reporter, the man declined to give his name. That hardly gives us confidence that a legitimate proposal is coming any time soon, and isn’t something the board can or should consider until there is a concrete proposal.
For now, the SSA has to make a difficult choice. They can continue to upset Woods Hole residents, or they can disappoint the companies trying to supply the Island and Islanders trying to get off the Vineyard early for work or medical appointments. The SSA should adopt what the NFL uses in overturning calls using instant replay. There must be “indisputable” evidence. In the case of the ferry schedule, there are only anecdotes from Woods Hole residents.
The SSA should keep the schedule as is, and continue to work with freight customers to be mindful of the residential neighborhoods they pass through. Put up signs on the SSA property to remind truck drivers about the rules for early morning ferries, and employ someone — perhaps a detail officer, as one commenter suggested — to enforce those rules.