Light turnout at SSA rate hike hearing 

Davis explains crew levels choices, discounts value to more night crossings.

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The Steamship Authority board is expected to vote on rate hikes Nov. 17.

On Nov. 5, the Steamship Authority held the second of two virtual meetings on proposed rate hikes for 2021. SSA treasurer Mark Rozum and general manager Robert Davis hosted the event, which was lightly attended and lasted about 30 minutes. 

Caroline Hunter of Oak Bluffs, who also attended the hearing held on Nov. 4, made note of the sparse attendance. She asked for 2021 passage estimates for the Vineyard, and contrasted those to the hearing attendance. 

Davis said 2,439,000 passengers were projected for 2021, 416,000 automobiles, and 142,000 trucks. 

“OK, so how many people are on this meeting, please?” Hunter asked.

“Right now we’re at 10, including us,” SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll replied. 

“OkK, we only had 9 yesterday,” she said. “I would encourage you all to please alert the public of this change. It’s significant for people, especially people who are daily commuters and workers.” 

Though pandemic losses were substantially lower than were forecast in the spring, COVID-19 still hampers SSA finances, and has been factored into 2021 numbers, Rozum showed.

Based on the hikes, Rozum said, “we go from a net operating loss of just under $1.4 million to a net operating income of $7.3 million, so you’re looking at about an $8.7 million difference.” 

The biggest driver of those numbers, according to Davis, is the operating schedule, which the ferry line aims to keep consistent. Davis described the operating schedules for 2020 and 2021 as being “effectively the same,” and furthermore “essentially the same,” as 2019. 

Tisbury select board member Jeff Kristal suggested peak pricing could be increased to include Thursdays during the season, as a way to realize additional revenue. Rozum said such a change, based on off-the-cuff calculations, would boost revenue on the Vineyard route by $300,000, and on the Nantucket route by $70,000.

Walk-on passenger fares will go up $1 if the hikes are voted in, but for some seniors it would be lower. In response to a question posed by Tisbury select board member Larry Gomez, Rozum said senior fare tickets would go up 50 cents. Senior fares are only available to seniors from port communities, Rozum noted.

Davis made note of crew levels in an effort to illustrate they weren’t too numerous and therefore too costly. “One of the other things that’s been pointed out in the past is a concern that we’re overstaffing our vessels — too many people,” he said. “There are requirements the Coast Guard has on our certificates of inspection on how many individuals need to be manning the vessels. You know, we’re basically at those manning levels, with a couple exceptions.” 

As examples, he said freight boats like the Gay Head and Katama do not require a chief engineer on board unless hazardous cargo is aboard. Since those vessels regularly convey hazardous cargo, the SSA puts chief engineers on them, he said. 

“The Iyanough does not require a pilot on board the vessel unless we’re operating at 30 knots or above,” he said. So it can maintain its schedule, it operates at 32 knots, “so it’s effectively a requirement.” 

Davis went on to say, “We also feel it’s a best practice to [have] chief engineers in each of the engine rooms for safety and reliability, as well as licensed deck officers in each of the bridges.”

Driscoll later explained licensed deck officers are captains and pilots.

Dukes County Commissioner Leon Brathwaite asked if union contracts drive how many folks crew vessels, or if such numbers are only informed by Coast Guard requirements.

“The union contracts that we have — we eliminated the minimum manning requirements in those contracts,” Davis said. Davis told Brathwaite all SSA ferries require two licensed deck officers with the aforementioned exception of the Iyanough. He didn’t explain the deck officer connection to any given union contract. 

“[W]e feel it’s a better practice to have two people on board in the wheelhouse,” he said. Davis added that at times, ordinary seamen are added to the crew rosters of the Martha’s Vineyard and the Island Home “just to make sure the cleaning is being taken care of during the voyages.”

Asked by The Times how Coast Guard minimum crew complements compare with standards from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an organization often cited in the HMS report and by SSA director of marine operations Mark Amundsen, Davis said, “We’re required to adhere to Coast Guard manning requirements.’

When it was pointed out Amundsen has gone on record as trying to align the SSA to IMO standards, Davis again gave a clipped response, “The regulatory agency that controls our manning is the Coast Guard.”

Asked if crossings later than the 9 o’clock hour might offset the need for rate hikes, Davis and Rozum were skeptical. “The schedule is predicated on requirements in terms of our vessel crewing, in terms of how many hours they can operate. So if we were to operate later in the day, we either have to start later in the morning, or we’d have to bring in an additional crew, which would cause additional expenses,” Davis said. 

He went on to say, “Over the years we’ve been looking at trying to optimize the travel times that people want to be traveling at. When we moved some of the trips from later in the day, it benefited the islands in terms of people being able to get off-Island to do their shopping, get to their medical appointments. The later trips are the trips that don’t have as much demand as those morning and afternoon trips.”

Rozum added late-night trips tend to be lopsided, with Vineyard to Woods Hole trips being “pretty empty” as opposed to late trips from Woods Hole to the Vineyard, being “very full.” 

“So if we did add additional trips it’s really going to be directional traffic one way,” he said. 

Kristal said later nighttime trips would be an expense to Tisbury as traffic officers would need additional compensation. 

At the close of the hearing, Driscoll said the meeting would be posted on the SSA YouTube channel. 

The Steamship Authority Port Council approved the rate hikes on Tuesday. The rates still need the approval of the SSA board, which is expected to vote on the issue Nov. 17.