SSA approves across-the-board rate hikes

COVID-19 is to blame for a decrease in passengers and need for additional revenue.

Here's a screenshot of how the rates will increase in 2021.

With a sigh and some reflection on just how difficult it is to raise ferry rates, the Steamship Authority board voted unanimously for rate hikes that will affect all users of the service as of Jan. 4, 2021.

The rates were first proposed last month, and were the subject of two sparsely attended public sessions earlier this month.

For the Vineyard route, standard vehicle fares will increase $4 off-peak and $6 in peak season, Monday through Thursday, while excursion rates increase $2.50 off-peak and $3.50 peak, one way. Trucks receive a 7 percent increase for passage. For passengers, single tickets will increase $1, a 10-ride pass increases $8 ($69 to $77), and a 46-ride commuter pass will jump $17 ($146 to $163). Parking will rise another $50 per year.

The increases are necessary because of a projected decrease in passenger traffic as a result of the ongoing pandemic, Mark Rozum, the SSA’s comptroller and treasurer, said.

Kathryn Wilson, Falmouth’s representative on the board, asked about doing more incremental rate hikes.

General manager Robert Davis said rate increases are only brought forward when necessary. In answer to a question, Davis said if ridership picks up, the SSA would look at whether rates could be rolled back.

During discussion of the SSA’s 2021 $127 million operating budget, which also won approval of the board, Rozum, in answering a question posed by board member Kathryn Wilson, said that the operational schedule is driven by demand. 

“As we saw in March, April, and May, as the vehicles declined, we scaled the service accordingly,” he said, “whether it was removing boats entirely from operation or replacing a big boat with a freight boat. We’re projecting to have the same vehicle traffic level we’ve had since pre-COVID levels … If we see a slippage in vehicle traffic, we would scale our operating service accordingly, and that would be a driver in what expenses are cut.”

The SSA projects that it will carry about 90 percent of the passengers that it carried in 2019, based on its experience during 2020.

Chairman James Malkin said he has questioned Rozum and Davis about whether smaller boats could be used in place of the Island Home to save money. In those conversations, it became clear that replacing the Island Home — the SSA’s most expensive ferry to operate — with smaller ferries wouldn’t be cost-effective because it would increase the number of crossings needed to meet demand, Malkin said. “The current operating schedule with our current demand seems to be the most cost-beneficial way to run this,” he said.

Nantucket representative Robert Ranney talked about how difficult it is to approve rate hikes. “Nobody likes this kind of discussion. Nobody likes fare increases, certainly I have, ever since I came on the board, I’ve been against fare increases as much as I could be, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet,” he said. “As you’ve said, Mr. Chairman, we need to provide the service, and unfortunately the costs of providing that are what they are. We’ve tried to cut where we could, and I don’t see another way around it.”

Port council loses two members

Two valued members of the SSA’s port council, both of them representing Martha’s Vineyard, have announced they are leaving the board.

Robert Huss, the Oak Bluffs port council member, who has served since 2005, and George Balco, the Tisbury port council member, a member since 2009, announced at the last meeting that they are leaving, Ed Anthes-Washburn, chairman of the port council, said during his report.

“A lot of institutional knowledge,” Anthes-Washburn said, noting that the two men have agreed to stay on until their replacements are chosen. “It’s going to be a big loss for the port council from an experience standpoint,” he said.

“That’s awful,” New Bedford board member Moira Tierney said. “You couldn’t convince one of them to stay for awhile?”

Both men were highly praised for their input to the Steamship Authority.

“They’ve been a tremendous assist … to the authority and the Island and their communities,” Malkin said. Malkin, in a letter to The Times, asks interested Islanders to apply. “Logic, common sense, and some financial knowledge is very very important to this job,” he said.

Despite being from the other Island, Ranney also sang the praises of Balco and Huss. “This hit us just as hard,” he said. “It’s impossible to imagine the Steamship Authority in a better place without these two guys there, and their unwavering service — often in the face of severe public acrimony.”

Tierney suggested, when appropriate, having a gathering on the Island to thank them for their service, and Robert Jones, Barnstable’s representative to the board, offered to buy them lunch in Hyannis.

In other business, the board approved new contracts with SeaStreak and Freedom Cruise Line, and received an update that pier repairs at the Oak Bluffs terminal are on track for a Dec. 20 completion date.