Updated at 1 pm
The Oak Bluffs ferry terminal may not open for the season because of problems with the pier and at least one town selectman says this latest issue calls for a change in leadership at the Steamship Authority.
An engineering report done by the SSA ahead of the spring and summer seasons showed defects in some pilings and decking plates that may not hold the weight of trucks and passenger vehicles, Jim Malkin, the Vineyard’s representative on the SSA board, told The Times. The pier, which is unprotected in Vineyard Sound, takes a beating during winter nor’easters, he said.
But a frustrated Brian Packish, chairman of the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen, told The Times the ferry service should have acted sooner to fix the problems and he places the blame on general manager Robert Davis. “I firmly believe the ship has run aground and it is past time for Mr. Davis to be escorted off the vessel,” Packish wrote in an email to Malkin. “No entity can responsibly invest in this failing enterprise under its current leadership.”
In a conversation with The Times, Packish pointed to the repeated failures of the SSA under Davis’s leadership, including the ferry breakdowns in the spring of 2018 and the cost overruns on the Woods Hole terminal project. “It’s a squeeze play due to their mismanagement. They’re $50 million in the hole due to bad construction projects and layer upon layer upon layer of mismanagement,” Packish said. “Everyone has been sticking with him, but now we’re multiple years into a perfect storm, they like to call it, every time something negative happens with no accountability or responsibility. They’ve been occurring weekly. It’s clear, you’re not sorry… You’re knowingly not doing your job. People in the community are fed up.”
Malkin said he understands the frustration that Packish is feeling, especially with the coronavirus issue having the potential to hurt the Island’s summer economy. Asked if he agreed with the assessment that Davis needs to go, Malkin said, “The SSA has made a number of changes in its organization following on from the consultant’s report. It takes time for those changes to gel and Mr. Davis has the support of the board of governors as we work through making the Steamship Authority an effective organization in these challenging times.”
Malkin said some of the delay in getting the engineering done was the replacement of Carl Walker, director of maintenance and engineering, whose job now falls under Mark Amundsen, director of marine operations.
Davis declined a request to be interviewed and instead SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll issued a statement. “Mr. Davis shares Selectman Packish’s concerns about the safety of the pier and the economic health of Oak Bluffs in light of the COVID-19 crisis. He is reserving further comment until the two are able to speak directly about both matters and until more details can be developed about the timing and scope of the repair project,” he wrote.
Driscoll also outlined the process for making repairs to the pier, which were part of the standard budgeting process in August.
“After a series of careful underwater inspections in February and March of this year to determine the extent of the repairs needed, the authority learned on March 30, 2020, that approximately 35 pilings were in critical need of repair. The Oak Bluffs terminal is not used during the off-season and, therefore, this issue will have no immediate effect on service. All vehicles we transport to the Island will continue to be loaded and offloaded at our Vineyard Haven terminal until the Oak Bluffs repair is complete. We are in the process of determining a timeline and budget for the repairs,” he wrote. “The reopening of the Oak Bluffs terminal as it relates to the COVID-19 crisis is a separate discussion that is ongoing and will be based on current and anticipated upcoming demand for service for the summer season, as well as the input of elected officials and business leaders in Oak Bluffs and across the Island.”
In a followup email, Driscoll wrote that $865,000 was budgeted for repairs. It’s unclear whether that will be enough to cover the extent of repairs that are needed.
Malkin said the SSA is looking to find out from the engineering firm whether a short-term fix can be put in place to safely use the pier for the season. He said he’s asked Davis to get that answer by the board’s next meeting on April 21 or sooner, if possible.
The possibility that the Oak Bluffs boats won’t run this summer is troubling to Packish.
“We are all working really hard to put the public health crisis first and it’s obvious with the actions of the boards of selectmen and boards of health, it’s working,” he said. “We’re going the extra mile to support the hospital.”
Reducing ferry service by 50 percent and 100 percent to Oak Bluffs would hurt the whole Island, he said. “I don’t care what town you’re from, if you cut the ferry service in half, it will affect you,” he said.
That’s on Malkin’s mind, too. “From everybody’s point of view, if we have visitors we want to accommodate them. We want a vibrant economic community,” he said.
Updated to include a statement from the SSA. -ed.