SSA climbs aboard the electric buses

Ferry service to purchase three buses with assistance of settlement funds.

A screenshot from the BYD USA website shows the type of electric bus the Steamship Authority is purchasing.

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 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. 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

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.


  1. It is good to see that some people realize these electric coal fired buses will do very little to help the climate. before they actually have an impact the useful life of those batteries will be over and then we’re gonna have an issue of what to do with those toxic batteries. There’s a lot of work still to be done on the whole cradle to grave issue with all renewables but this makes a few people feel better. Of course the taxpayer pays for it in the long run which is what is really driving the whole Green movement. Keep in mind government grants mean they took the money from somebody else because that’s all the government can do is take it from someone and then give it to someone else.

    • Bob– just a quick reply here– you will will hear more from me later–
      The lithium in these “toxic batteries” is 100 % recyclable .And can be done relatively easily.
      Do you think there are no “cradle to grave” issues with generating electricity from coal ? Nuclear, oil, gas.?
      There are issues with every form of generation.
      And really ? you are worried about where the money from gov grants comes from and goes ? You gotta be kidding– a 30 second search comes up with this–
      guess what ? About 90 % of gov energy grant money goes to fossil fuels —

    • Bob– you mention “these electric coal fired busses” — you do know that there are no coal fired power plants in New England, right ?
      Perhaps you think that George Soros is loading all that excess electricity generated by coal fired plants in Appalachia on trucks and bringing it up here so we can waste it on our “eco friendly” busses. Just think of the cost of putting all that electricity on a truck– and it’s probably really dangerous– you is right– we don’t need none of that here.
      And just for the record, large agri industries got 22 billion in government handouts after trump put tariffs on agricultural products going to China.
      Yup– the gov took it from me and gave it to millionaire “farmers” to not grow soy beans.

    • Dear Bob,

      Power in the Northeast is primarily generated by natural gas through a controversial method called fracking.
      The Island could be energy sufficient through the use of fracking, on island. Will you sign on for that?

      I remember when America was great.
      We threw lead acid batteries in the local dump.
      Now we don’t.
      All modern batteries can be recycled, it is a matter of the economics.

      The Green Movement’s object is to increase taxes?

      The Steamship took money from Volkswagen, not your tax money.
      The Government takes money from everyone and gives money to everyone.
      For years and years I gave the the government money and now they give me money, is that wrong?

      I want the government to spend my money on electric busses not gasoline busses.
      I like cleaner air.
      Do you?

  2. Wow – each bus is a million dollars? That’s quite the price tag to pay. I hope they last as long as the gas powered buses.

    • Rena -read carefully– the cost includes the charging stations– that means that over the next 30 years or so ( or perhaps i can just say the next 500 years or so if i want to lie, ) every other bus that comes along will be able to use these charging stations and that will be reflected in the cost– The article does not disclose the cost of the charging stations– perhaps they are 2 million and the busses only cost 330 k each– that’s in line with the cost of a bus.
      Also, given the energy savings, this likely brings the cost of the e busses over the long run below the cost of a gas powered bus.
      And you are ignoring the fact that almost 1/3 of that cost will be paid from the settlement that Volkswagen agreed to after they got busted for deliberately violating environmental emissions laws.
      I am known here as a researcher. I am willing to spend some time looking at cost benefit analysis, but i have other things to do– Perhaps some of the conservatives here could present an actual fact or 2 that i could focus on.
      No Rena– each bus is not a million dollars..
      In the long run, they will likely be cheaper than a gas guzzler— that’s why they are doing this–

      • Don;
        You are wildly speculating on all costs including the charging stations. Additionally, you only presume the purchased stations will carry over to multiple generations of Ebuses…………….they very likely may not ! Stop spreading uncertainties ……………..not healthy for our community !

        • james– since there are not many actual facts available to us, wild speculation is the only thing we have. However, I am not speculating on the $3 million number nor am I speculating on reduced operational cost .
          Why wouldn’t these charging stations not be able to be used for “multiple generations” ? I think it is reasonable to “speculate” that a charging station like this would last for 30 years. I think it would be wildly speculative to say they would only last 5 years, or perhaps 500 years. 30 years seems reasonable.
          But I did find something to compare to.
          The Church street charging station in Edgartown was slated to cost 1.4 million. of course that had some cost associated with it like a new bus stop shelter, etc, and it was an inductance charger, which presumable is more expensive. But we can reasonably assume that there will be some tangential costs associated with this proposal also.

          Perhaps you could do a little looking around and give us some real facts, rather than complain that I am wildly speculating, while you wildly speculate.

  3. How about getting more bus drivers so they don’t have to pack people in like sardines in the summer , shoulder to shoulder, standing up with no restraint , someday there will be a big accident, mark my words !!

  4. We need mini buses like the hotel/rental cars at airports to be running during the non tourist months (November-April) that are small and efficient. I have yet to observe a full bus in the off season. There are many that are empty…… My comment applies to the Island buses.

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