Steamship Authority amendment signed into law

Port communities inoculated against ferry line’s COVID-19 deficit.

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Port communities are off the hook for the Steamship Authority's COVID-induced deficit. - Rich Saltzberg

Updated @ 4 pm

Gov. Charlie Baker signed a supplemental budget Friday that included an amendment meant to insulate the port communities of Barnstable, Falmouth, Nantucket, New Bedford, and Martha’s Vineyard from the responsibility of shouldering a 2020 Steamship Authority deficit estimated at $25 million.

The ferry service has been bleeding money since March because of reduced ridership during the pandemic. In recent weeks, there’s been an uptick in ridership that will help the SSA avoid the early dire warnings of as much as a $60 million deficit.

According to the Enabling Act that created the SSA, the commonwealth of Massachusetts will pay any loss at the end of the year, and then can pass that along to the port communities of Martha’s Vineyard (35 percent), Nantucket (35 percent), Barnstable (10 percent), Falmouth (10 percent), and New Bedford (10 percent).

An almost completely autonomous state transit agency, the Steamship Authority self-funds through farebox revenue, as opposed to receiving taxpayer dollars. A precipitous decrease in passengers, especially during the spring months, caused rolling budget shortfalls and triggered a request for CARES Act support. The ferry line received that support, $12 million, with help from Rep. Bill Keating’s office and the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority. But the CARES Act funds and a line of credit from Martha’s Vineyard Bank haven’t been enough to plug the hole created by the pandemic. At the board’s July meeting, general manager Robert Davis estimated the deficit would be in the $25 million range. 

In a statement issued Friday, Davis expressed thanks for the amendment becoming law. “We are extremely grateful that the governor, the legislative delegation, and the Executive Office for Administration and Finance worked together on behalf of the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority to add clarity to our finances in the wake of the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “The bill that Governor Baker signed [Friday] will provide relief to the port communities we serve during these difficult economic times. We are fortunate to have elected officials who are responsive to the needs of the citizens and communities that depend on the vital transportation services we provide to and from the Islands.”

State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and Sen. Susan Moran, D-Falmouth, were among the amendment’s sponsors. State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, lent a hand with the amendment, and helped to modify its language.

Along with the relief for SSA port communities, Gov. Baker tweeted out that the supplemental budget he signed into law also authorizes COVID-19 spending, and establishes Juneteenth as an annual state holiday on June 19 “to ensure racial freedom and equality.”

Updated to include a statement from Davis.