Updated @ 7:45 pm
The Steamship Authority is purchasing three electric buses from BYD USA for $2.95 million, but will offset that cost with reimbursements of $875,000 from a combination of government settlements with Volkswagen and a federal grant, general manager Robert Davis said.
The bus contract was approved by a unanimous vote of the SSA board Monday morning. Davis said it will take 12 to 14 months to get the vehicles.
The buses are the first electric buses purchased by the SSA, though it did test the technology with the assistance of the Vineyard Transit Authority. During that test, a bus was able to operate a full eight-hour shift and still have about 20 percent of its battery capacity left, Davis said.
The contract includes the charging stations for the buses as well. Two of the buses will be used to shuttle passengers from Palmer Avenue and Thomas Landers parking lots to Woods Hole, and one is being assigned to the Hyannis-Nantucket route.
“Electric is coming; I’m glad we’re moving this way with the buses,” Jim Malkin, the Vineyard’s representative to the board, said. He noted that Gov. Charlie Baker has approved a requirement that all new vehicles be electric by 2035. Malkin added that the SSA needs to start thinking about ways to charge electric ferries or hybrid models, should there be a move toward those in the future.
Board member Robert Jones pointed out that it’s not an entirely green initiative. “Until the generation of electricity is purely — is not taken burning coal and other burners like that, it’s not 100 percent recovery on the carbon emissions,” he said.
The buses are 40 feet long, and are similar to the new diesel buses in use by the SSA in that they have both a front and a mid-body door, which allows for easier access for customers with mobility issues. In answering a question, Davis said the charging would be done by hookups, not induction charging like the stations planned by the VTA in Edgartown.
COVID affects travel
In recent weeks, Davis acknowledged that the uptick in cases around the state has been felt at the SSA, with an increasing number of cases involving crew members. “With COVID cases on the rise, our personnel have not been immune to that,” he said.
Because the number of cases is on the rise among personnel, the ferry service accelerated its scheduled changes, and went to a winter schedule as of Jan. 16 — three days early, Davis said.
He also said that despite the governor’s order mandating face coverings in public, “mask-wearing compliance remains a challenge” on SSA ferries. Signs and public address announcements are made, but some passengers pull them off when SSA employees are out of view, he said.
But in an effort to keep passengers safe, the SSA continues to clean boats with hospital-grade disinfectants, and alerts visitors from out-of-state about the rules regarding travel to Massachusetts, Davis said.
Meanwhile, the number of passengers on the ferries continues to lag year-to-year. Davis reported November numbers that were down across the board. The number of passengers was down nearly 21 percent, or 36,141 over the previous year. For the first 11 months of the year, 31.4 percent fewer passengers, or nearly 891,000, took the ferries.
Vehicle traffic was also down in November, but only 0.2 percent, or 59 vehicles. For the first 11 months of the year, vehicle traffic was down 9.4 percent, or 42,240 vehicles. Truck traffic was down 1.4 percent in November, and 12 percent for the year. The number of vehicles parking at SSA lots was also down 40.2 percent for the first 11 months of 2020.
All of the reductions in passengers and traffic translate to loss of revenue. The SSA had net operating losses of $3.5 million in November, nearly $20 million in operating revenue for the first 11 months of the year, and more than $1 million in other revenue.
“Fund balances are in relatively good shape, considering everything,” Davis said.
Davis has recently included charts and pie graphs to show the SSA’s fiscal outlook. The visuals were acknowledged by Jones. “I really appreciate the structure that you’re using with pie charts. You can navigate through the thing pretty quickly, as opposed to putting it in paragraph form. To me, I’m a fan,” he said.
Centerplate, which operates the concessions on the ferries, has been relieved of its contractual obligation to pay a minimum of $730,000 to the SSA. The concessions have been closed since the early stages of the pandemic. Once they reopen, Centerplate will still be required to give a percentage of its sales to the ferry service, but won’t have to pay that minimum.
Woods Hole project and new committees
The SSA received an update from BIA.studio architects Lian Davis and Chris Iwerks on the Woods Hole terminal building. Iwerks said they expect to have schematic drawings by the end of March, and more complete ones by the end of May. During that time, they’ll be holding public Zoom sessions to get feedback from stakeholders.
The design of the building has been a bone of contention among Woods Hole residents, with the SSA ultimately agreeing to reduce its size and add a second utility building.
Iwerks and Davis said they will work up numbers on getting the building LEED-zero-energy certified, but it will be up to the SSA on whether it’s worth it financially to go for the additional measures that will result in that certification.
BIA.studio is working on relocating a bike parking area. Davis said there was concern with the bikes passing in front of vehicles.
The architects are also incorporating measures, like ventilation systems, that will prepare the building for a possible future health crisis like the pandemic.
Iwerks said once the schematics are approved, they expect the design development phase to take about six months. The project could go out to bid by next September.
Later in the meeting, Davis was authorized to award an $885,321 contract with BIA.studios for its ongoing work on the project.
“Ouch,” Moira Tierney, who represents New Bedford on the SSA board, said. “This project is somewhat overwhelming,” she added.
Davis explained that when the project began, they expected the annual contracts would be $800,000 for BIA.studio.
The board had a lengthy presentation and then discussion with former general counsel and consultant Steven Sayers about the long-range planning task force and the traffic mitigation working group.
Sayers pointed out the two groups are having some detailed discussions about problems with traffic in Vineyard Haven and noise concerns in Woods Hole, but have come to no conclusions.
Malkin raised concerns with the need for the groups, given there is already a port council and the SSA board — specifically pointing to a recent discussion with Ralph Packer about barge services. Jones raised issues with the transparency of the task force, saying he’d like to see minutes from the meetings in a more timely manner, and that SSA staff should not be voting board members but, instead, should serve only as advisors.
Sayers said the task force is a fact-gathering group, not responsible for enforcement or solving the problems with traffic and other issues, like increased demand for freight. “Just getting the communities to talk about these issues with each other is an achievement by itself,” he said.
The working group is reviewing ongoing issues with enforcement of the SSA’s regulations and policies on things like early-arriving trucks in Woods Hole. Ultimately, the SSA’s presence and traffic in Woods Hole creates a problem for the village, Sayers said. “If we can be better neighbors and have our customers be better neighbors, that’s our goal.”
Updated to include more details from Monday’s meeting.