No layoffs at three American ferry systems

State funding is a common factor, including at the nation's largest ferry service.

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A Washington State Ferries Jumbo Mark II ferry. —Courtesy Washington State Ferries

Unlike the Steamship Authority, the Alaska Marine Highway System, Maine State Ferry Service, and Washington State Ferries haven’t laid anyone off during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

To date, the SSA has laid off 114 people and projects tens of millions in revenue losses due to impacts on ridership brought on by the novel coronavirus epidemic. Absent a handful of grants and special program funds, the SSA funds itself solely from farebox proceeds — what people pay to come aboard ferries as passengers or as vehicle drivers. Even though the ferry line is a type of state entity, the commonwealth does not augment the SSA budget except in defecit emergencies. And even then, taxpayer dollars are reimbursed to the state treasury through assessments made to the five SSA port communities. Such an event has happened only once, in 1962, when debt from the predecessor to the SSA overwhelmed the modern and newly established incarnation of the ferry line. The reliance on farebox revenue gives the SSA more autonomy and helps shield it from some of the political winds that buffet other state transportation agencies but it could potentially leave it more vulnerable to unforeseen fiscal impacts such as the pandemic. 

While its fleets, typical ridership, and route types differ from the SSA, America’s largest ferry service, Washington State Ferries, has taken plenty of blows from the pandemic. Nevertheless it has not trimmed any workers. Washington State Ferries takes in most of its revenue from the farebox but has roughly a quarter of its budget covered by the State of Washington.

“Our system’s farebox recovery has been around 75 percent over the past few years,” Washington State Ferries spokesperson Justin Fujioka emailed. 

“In general,” Fujioka wrote, “our system ridership is down about 75 percent from this time in 2019, with walk-on riders down more than 90 percent. Our drop in vehicles is less, around 65 percent.” 

Fujioka wasn’t immediately able to muster anticipated revenue losses for Washington State Ferries specifically but speaking of the ferry line as a component of the Washington State Department of Transportation, he was able to forecast an overall figure. 

“Given the uncertainty of the duration of the pandemic and the lag in revenue reporting, there are no exact figures right now, but current traffic and ridership numbers suggest that the state could expect a loss of revenue of as much as $100 million per month,” he wrote. “This includes impacts to the Washington State Department of Transportation (which the ferries fall under) and our partner agencies that rely on the same revenue streams.” 

The Maine State Ferry Service also hasn’t experienced any layoffs, although it too has suffered negative effects from the pandemic and it also utilizes state funding. 

“MaineDOT pays half of the operating costs of the Maine State Ferry Service,” Maine Department of Transportation spokesperson Paul Merrill emailed. “The other half is funded by fares. MaineDOT pays all of the capital costs of the Maine State Ferry Service. Our ridership has dropped, and fares are down.”

As of April 14, the Alaska Marine Highway System hasn’t laid off folks either.

“The Alaska Marine Highway System has not laid off any employees during the COVID-19 crisis,” Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesperson Samuel Dapcevich emailed. “Fewer AMHS ships are operating at this time due to the significant decrease in service demand and for the safety of vessel crews and passengers.” 

With the fiscal crisis the SSA is presently embroiled in, and the subject of tinkering with the ferry line’s enabling act a recurring topic, The Times asked SSA board chairman Jim Malkin if there would be any benefit to inviting more state participation in ferry line business. 

“I don’t think we need a change in the structure of the Steamship Authority,” Malkin said. “I think the COVID-19 epidemic and the resultant impact on ridership and revenue have exposed areas where the Steamship Authority could operate better. Six weeks ago when I was being considered for the Steamship Authority board, I told the Dukes County Commissioners that there were areas of operations that needed improvement, specifically responsibility, accountability, types of vessels, and maintenance. I continue to think that’s the case. And I look forward to getting through this pandemic and working with the authority to make it a more effective operation.”

Tisbury selectman Jeff Kristal, whose town is the primary port for the SSA on the Vineyard, said the jury wasn’t out on whether such tinkering was warranted. 

“It’s a discussion we haven’t had yet,” he said. Going forward he said he expected “everything will be on the table.” 

He pointed out the Vineyard would be loath to give up its 35 percent voting weight. Like the Nantucket representative, the Vineyard’s board representative wields a vote weighted at 35 percent as opposed to any of the other three port communities on the board which have votes weighted at 10 percent apiece.

“That’s not to say fine-tuning in the enabling legislation wouldn’t help us,” he said. 

He pointed specifically to strictures that prohibit the SSA from having more than two months’ worth of funds in its operating budget as something to be looked at. 

Another thing Kristal thought was worth exploring was the town embarkation fee.

“Is a 50-cent embarkation fee enough? I think it’s up for discussion.”

Kristal said one unanticipated benefit of the pandemic has been Vineyard cohesion on what has notoriously been a Balkanized Island.

“Island towns are just pulling together and moving toward a common goal,” he said. He added the scent of regionalization is intensifying. 

“This might be the perfect storm to get us to act.”