The state’s two U.S. senators and the congressman for the Cape and Islands are asking their congressional colleagues to help bail out the nation’s ferry industry, including the Steamship Authority.
In a joint letter to House and Senate leaders signed by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. William Keating, they urge financial support for the ferry industry, which has experienced “unparalleled economic challenges due to the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).”
Ferry services like the SSA have seen a significant drop in ferry passengers due to stay-at-home orders. Earlier this week, SSA general manager Robert Davis provided ridership numbers for April that showed that significant drop in passengers. Walk-on passengers were down 16 percent, or 160,000, in April compared with the previous year. Vehicle traffic was also down significantly, as people stayed at home and some construction workers were banned from showing up at work sites on the Island for most of the month.
The letter from the congressional delegation suggests the money be distributed through the existing Construction of Ferry Boats and Ferry Terminal Facilities Formula Program.
The letter points out that the SSA relies on fare revenue, but between March 17 and April 14, the SSA lost an estimated $2.99 million in revenue. SSA has also reported losses of $1 million a week because of the decreased ridership related to COVID-19. The SSA has reduced its schedule, and has laid off more 100 employees.
“Due to the dramatic decrease in ridership as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SSA is struggling to continue their operations, and the SSA has stated that they will not be able to provide needed services to the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket after this month without financial relief,” the lawmakers wrote. “As a result, we request that Congress allocate at least $3 billion in emergency relief funding targeted specifically at ferry services, to be distributed through the existing Construction of Ferry Boats and Ferry Terminal Facilities Formula Program.”
The SSA has been asking for government assistance, sending a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker seeking help. Meanwhile, it has received $9.8 million in transportation funds as part of the CARES Act, which Keating helped to expedite.
“It’s a terrific letter. I’m delighted they ID’d a program that could give help. I look forward to seeing this process work its way out, and hopefully result in assistance to the Steamship Authority,” said James Malkin, chair of the SSA board and the Vineyard’s representative on it. “Any relief that helps the Steamship Authority to serve the Islands and relieves the state and towns from having to go to their increasingly depleted coffers would be welcome.”
The SSA issued an official statement through spokesman Sean Driscoll: “We are incredibly grateful for the attention our federal congressional delegation and their staffs have given to our unique funding challenge in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This federal effort to provide emergency ferry service relief nationwide represents one possible solution to the Authority’s funding challenges being considered at both the state and federal level. While this request is being pursued, we will continue to run our operations in the most cost-effective manner possible while we investigate with our state and federal colleagues all available options to help fund our operations and, ultimately, to avoid having to assess our port communities for any operational deficits at the end of the year. I sincerely thank Sens. Warren and Markey and Rep. Keating for their diligence and assistance.”
Island leaders were also hopeful. “That’s good news,” Tristan Israel, chair of the Dukes County Commissioners, said of the letter. “Anything our local community can do to support that effort, I would encourage. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Commissioner Keith Chatinover said it’s clearly needed: “It looks like they’re going to keel over and die. It looks like they’re going to sink.” Chatinover went on to say if Congress can deliver funds that help maintain service to the Vineyard, he fully supports that happening.
“Whatever can be done for the Steamship Authority on the state or federal level will be beneficial,” Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty said. “Based on the enabling act, Dukes County pays for 35 percent of any deficiency.” Hagerty went on to say he calculated what would happen if the $60 million shortfall SSA general manager Bob Davis forecast came true.
“Based on the county tax, Edgartown will be responsible for 40 percent,” he said, a figure he said comes to $8.4 million. He has no idea how the town would pay that.
Reporter Rich Saltzberg contributed to this story.