The Steamship Authority is adrift on the edge of a fiscal whirlpool increasingly likely to suck it under.
The ridership figures for April were sobering. Overall traffic on the ferries was 16 percent of traffic for the previous year — down 160,000 passengers, general manager Robert Davis told the SSA board Tuesday. Automobile volume was only 23 percent of where it was a year ago, down 25,000 automobiles, he said. Truck traffic was the least affected, but it was still 40 percent of normal — down 10,000 trucks overall, including 7,000 on the Vineyard run.
If the present trend in ridership continues through the summer, without an infusion of funds, the ferry line will have a $60 million loss, roughly half the regular annual revenue, Davis explained. In an interview with The Times days before Tuesday’s meeting, Davis said a statutory deficit would be incurred without a dramatic revenue change by July.
“If traffic levels don’t get back to 100 percent by July 1, yes there would be a deficit,” he said. “Now the question becomes whether the commonwealth would pass that along to the communities in the form of an assessment.”
Davis waxed optimistic that Massachusetts, which pays the SSA at the end of the year in the event of a deficit declared to the state treasurer, might opt not to turn around and assess the five port communities for that figure. Asked if this was something brought up in discussion with the state, Davis replied that there have been “wide-ranging discussions” with state officials, including from the Executive Office of Administration and Finance and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
He re-emphasized the state doesn’t necessarily have to assess the port communities.
“I believe they have some latitude in that regard,” he said.
That stance could not be immediately confirmed with the commonwealth.
Should an assessment occur, whatever the final figure is, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket would each pay 35 percent of it, while Barnstable, Falmouth, and New Bedford would each pay 10 percent of it.
SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll cautioned it’s an evolving problem not deeply explored in decades.
“We haven’t done this since the Kennedy Administration so everyone’s figuring it out,” he said.
Davis told the board even at three quarters of normal revenue, the fiscal hole would be deep.
“If we only get up to say 75 percent of what our normal traffic volume is, starting in July for the remainder of the year, we’re looking at a $40 million against our projected revenues,” he said.
Davis said May numbers have “ticked up slightly.”
Ahead of a board vote to unanimously authorize a $10 million line of credit with Martha’s Vineyard Bank, New Bedford board member Moira Tierney asked Davis when the cash runs out.
The credit line plus $8 million the SSA has in the bank was enough to keep the ferry line afloat until Labor Day, he replied.
Tierney and chair Jim Malkin weren’t completely sold and pressed Davis for a business model to navigate the season during the pandemic. Tierney folded in criticism she’d leveled at the Oak Bluffs terminal previously, questioning demands for its repair versus the need for the ferry line to remain operational.
“My biggest concern is how do we sustain at least bare bones transportation to both Islands so we can get freight over there — goods and services to service first and foremost the Islanders,” she said, noting that she doesn’t think the terminal project is the priority. “Regardless of what they say, our first priority is to make sure the Steamship Authority can operate with the most lean of finances to service the people that reside on both Islands. That’s my concern.”
Malkin said the subject was substantial enough that it should be explored further at the regular monthly meeting and asked it be tabled until then.
Davis closed by saying management was looking at what level of service was “going to be necessary for the summer.”