The Steamship Authority came to Martha’s Vineyard to get feedback on a draft mission statement, but wound up getting an earful on its advertising, carbon footprint, and even the reliability of its fleet of ferries.
About 15 people, including several Island officials, gathered in the meeting room at Martha’s Vineyard Museum to hear about the mission statement, which was one of the recommendations that came from a top-to-bottom independent review done by HMS Consulting. The consultant was hired after a string of ferry woes in the spring of 2018.
Sean Driscoll, communications director for the SSA and the ferry service’s point man on the mission statement, led the session, which was scheduled for Oct. 17, but had to be scratched when a storm knocked out ferry crossings. Alison Fletcher, the SSA’s director of shoreside operations, and Marc Hanover, Martha’s Vineyard’s representative on the SSA board, were also on hand.
Driscoll said the mission statement will act as the foundation for the SSA’s strategic plan.
The draft states, “Our mission is to operate a safe, efficient, and reliable transportation system for the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in an environment committed to sustainability, accessibility, and community engagement.”
The SSA developed a long-winded statement in the mid-1990s that took some digging to find, Driscoll explained. The new draft comes after feedback at public meetings and through written correspondence from 67 individual commenters. Driscoll hopes to present a final draft for approval by the SSA board and port council in November.
“I’ve never spent so much time on a sentence in my entire life, and I was an English major,” Driscoll said.
During the comment period, Island residents drilled down on some of the specific definitions of the mission statement, and were particularly focused on the word “sustainability.” Once again, electric ferries, a recurring theme at recent public forums, were mentioned.
“We need to reduce our carbon footprint,” Anna Edey said. She called on the SSA to commit to using photovoltaic electricity to power its facilities and become less dependent on fossil fuels: “That would be a big step forward.”
Dean Rosenthal criticized the SSA for spending so much on advertising. Nowhere on the SSA website does it refer to the ferry service being the “lifeline of the Island,” he said. Instead, it says the “lowest fares to the Island.” “It just seems like a giant sales pitch some of the time,” Rosenthal said.
Jim Athearn, president of the Vineyard Conservation Society, said the group is concerned about growth on the Island and the SSA’s role in driving that growth. A second slip in Vineyard Haven, for example, was supposed to be for ferries with mechanical issues, but has turned into a way to keep multiple ferries moving back and forth between the mainland and Martha’s Vineyard.
“The more you make it easier to come here, the more people will come. We don’t want more people,” Athearn said.
Jim Klingensmith said the advertisements aren’t just bringing in the traveling public. “Advertising that goes state to state is not bringing the traveling public, it’s bringing vacationers,” Klingensmith said.
“Who we would consider our traveling public,” Driscoll interjected.
“They’re your focus, not us,” Klingensmith said. “I’m willing to bet if you did a survey on the Vineyard, you would find more than 75 percent of the people who live here think that the Steamship doesn’t see us as their primary service.”
Rosenthal, Hanover, and Edey got into a testy exchange over the SSA’s $1 million advertising budget, which Driscoll said is just 1 percent of the SSA’s overall budget.
“Stop the advertising,” Edey said, with Driscoll trying to refocus the meeting on the mission statement. “Why advertise? Why?”
Hanover said it’s aimed toward walk-on passengers. The SSA doesn’t make money on cars and trucks, it’s on walk-on customers, he said. “As far as the Steamship Authority expanding: Stop building houses. All right? This Island has exploded. It has nothing to do with the Steamship Authority. The Steamship Authority meets the demand … Walk-on passengers subsidize your fares. If you want to stop advertising, if you want to stop people coming over here, triple your rates on your cars. It’s that simple.”
“Some of us may be willing to make that tradeoff,” Rosenthal said.
“If you can afford it, that’s great,” Hanover said.
Rosenthal added that with only about 100 to 120 new homes built that doesn’t account for the thousands of additional car trips to the Island.
“I don’t feel protected or represented well. When you say the advertising is for walk-on passengers, could you describe how ‘the cheapest fares to the Island’ specifically appeals to walk-on passengers?”
“That’s exactly who it’s targeted for,” Hanover responded.
“C’mon. None of us were born yesterday,” Rosenthal said.
“How many are we talking about?” Edey added.
“We have competition,” Hanover said.
“What competition?” Edey said. Driscoll tried to stop the back and forth.
“SeaStreak. Hy-Line,” Hanover said.
“That’s tiny, tiny, tiny,” Edey said.
“It’s competition,” Hanover said.
“Yes, but it’s tiny,” Edey said.
Driscoll said he would be happy to continue the discussion outside the meeting. “We don’t talk about advertising in the mission statement. I understand you don’t want us to advertise. I think we can move on from that at this point.”
Harriet Barrow, a Vineyard Haven resident, questioned why Islanders are charged more in the summer months.
Driscoll said there has been some discussion of creating a “blended rate,” but it would involve increasing the excursion rate overall to set one price throughout the year. He compared the summer increases to ticket prices being hiked at Fenway Park when the Yankees are in town to play the Red Sox.
Molly Cabral urged the Steamship Authority to mention the other ports in the mission statement, specifically Woods Hole. “I do not think that it’s Woods Hole’s job in this world to be a parking lot for the Vineyard and to provide a place for the Steamship to operate,” Cabral said. “It seems to me the mission statement should include Woods Hole somehow.”
Driscoll asked if Hyannis and New Bedford should also be added. Cabral said yes.
Later, Cabral pointed out that SSA seems committed to growth. She pointed out the third slip in Woods Hole, which is being used despite assurances that it wouldn’t be used for more trips. “There are boats running all the time now. It’s handy for us,” she said. “You guys just want to keep growing, growing, growing, growing, and it’s crushing — it has crushed Woods Hole, and it will crush here.”
Updated to add additional information.