Steamship board questions special V.H. ferry

State help with budget deficit, if needed, expected to be minimal.

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A private dock in Vineyard Haven that could see ferry service from Falmouth under a proposed change to the Cape and Island Transport Inc. license with the Steamship Authority. --Rich Saltzberg

Updated Feb. 17

The Steamship Authority board expressed skepticism at a Tuesday meeting when a licensee for service between Falmouth and Edgartown not only asked to switch vessels, but also asked to be allowed to bring service to Vineyard Haven. The board approved a switch of the MV Pied Piper for the MV Sandpiper for Cape and Islands Transport’s Edgartown service, but tabled the company’s request to carry restaurant diners and staff to Vineyard Haven on another ferry.

The board unanimously approved a capital expenditure budget of just under $6.8 million. The budget includes $2.9 million for previously approved electric buses, $2 million for a new website or mobile app, and $500,000 for vessel design and engineering. General manager Robert Davis maintained a position established in October when he predicted the operating budget deficit caused by the pandemic would be in the range of $12 million. He further said in the event of a request for state aid, the figure would be minimal. 

The most debate of the meeting arose when Falmouth attorney Robert Ament came before the board to pitch compound alterations to the license agreement Cape and Islands Transport Inc. has with the Steamship Authority.

Ament’s client, Vincent Geoffroy, is president of Cape and Islands Transport Inc. He also owns, manages, or has some interest in Vineyard Haven Marina on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, a property that includes the restaurant Garde East. His precise stake in the Vineyard Haven businesses wasn’t made clear. Reached by phone Thursday, Ament declined to comment on Geoffroy. Several calls to Geoffroy’s ferry office in Falmouth rang with no person or voicemail picking up.

Steamship general manager Robert Davis and general counsel Terence Kenneally outlined for the board what Geoffroy’s other request was — to have ferry service to his marina from Falmouth, one trip in the morning and one trip in the evening. The board grew puzzled and then dubious as the request appeared to morph from transporting restaurant employees to transporting those employees plus restaurant patrons. Davis admitted SSA staff hadn’t run the idea by town officials. “On this service, we did not reach out to Tisbury to find out if they had any issues with this,” he said.

Part of the request also asked that license fees associated with the transportation of employees be waived.

Barnstable board member Robert Jones said he found the license change requests confusing, and questioned how “critical” it was that the Vineyard Haven portion be acted on immediately.

New Bedford board member Moira Tierney said she saw pitfalls to the request. Tierney likened it to allowing SeaStreak to ferry employees from New Bedford to the Vineyard to service a hypothetical “ancillary” venture of theirs. “I can’t support that,” she said. “You know the floodgates could open on that type of thing. That would really be, I think, dangerous territory.”

Vineyard representative Jim Malkin said he shared the doubts Jones and Tierney had with the proposal. 

“I find this to be pretty problematic,” Malkin said. He expressed support for the sentiments behind Tierney’s SeaStreak analogy. “This is a request to carry employees who are not part of the boat operation but part of a restaurant and/or other operation,” he said.

Ament countered by saying he was “amenable” to nixing the fee exception for ancillary employees. He nevertheless continued to press for approval of the new boat service: “The goal is to have people dining at the restaurant not have to get up and leave early.” He described the service as “important for expanding the restaurant clientele.”

“Now I’m really confused,” Malkin said. He told Ament he understood the purpose of the service was to ferry employees, as opposed to restaurant patrons. 

Ament described the dining patrons as passengers who would be factored into the license fee, as opposed to employees who use the ferry, who wouldn’t be. He added that “perhaps” a “few” marina customers would also be factored in.

Malkin also raised the issue about the lack of consultation afforded Tisbury officials. Nantucket board member Robert Ranney said, “No one has convinced me there’s a need for this.” He also echoed Malkin’s reservations about Tisbury being left out of the process.

Reached after the meeting, Tisbury select board chair Jim Rogers expressed doubt about such service. “I don’t know if they could do that with the existing zoning restrictions on that side of Beach Road,” he said. He confirmed the subject hasn’t been presented to his board, and suggested such service would likely require a special permit. 

Ultimately the Steamship board approved the switch of vessels in Edgartown, but tabled the Vineyard Haven service request. 

New ferry and manageable deficit

Davis informed the board he expects a new ferry to be under construction by 2023. Such a ferry, he noted, would likely replace one of the older vessels in operation. A portion of the $500,000 engineering and design line item in the capital expenditures budget would be dedicated to evaluating the fleet through marine surveys, he said, which would help in planning for the new ferry. The last surveys were done in 2012 by Marine Safety Consultants, he said, and updates were done in 2018. Age, construction materials, machinery types, service type, and other factors that can help the SSA determine the “useful life” of a vessel will be assessed in the surveys, he said. Along with the Nantucket, Davis pointed to the venerable Governor as a likely candidate for replacement.

“We do need to take into account the motor vessel Governor is 67 years old, and the motor vessel Nantucket is 47 years old,” he said. “Typically we’re looking at 50 years’ useful life for these vessels. So seven of our vessels right now are over 25 years old, six of them are over 30 years old.”

Asked by Malkin if some of the line-item money will be put toward researching hybrid and electric vessels, Davis indicated the subject of “alternative power technology” and the infrastructure and skills needed to support such technology was of interest, but he didn’t indicate whether it would be funded by the line item. 

In response to a question by The Times, Davis said the ferry line is unlikely to need state aid to cover its operating budget deficit. He estimated the deficit at “about $12 million.” Davis gave a similar fiscal prediction in October, when improved traffic numbers were anticipated to diminish the year-end deficit to $10 million to $12 million, far rosier than the $60 million abyss forecast earlier in the year — a sum equal to half the annual operating budget. 

Between CARES Act funds, other grant funds, and money in the SSA reserve fund, Davis indicated, the ferry line wasn’t expected to need state help, but if it did, the figure “would be relatively small.”

The final answer on the subject is still “a couple months” out, Davis said, as audited financial statements are key and have yet to be done. 

In other business, Davis noted during a presentation of year-end figures that the Vineyard route saw 32 cancellations in 2020 due to mechanical failures. For Nantucket the number was 31. Both Ranney and board chair Kathryn Wilson were especially pleased to learn neither route had any mechanical cancellations in December. Prompted by The Times, Davis gave a brief update on the freight ferry Katama, which was sidelined on Jan. 31 after a hull fracture was discovered.

“So the Katama is at our Fairhaven facility currently,” Davis said. “It’s scheduled to make its way to Thames Shipyard in Connecticut at the beginning of next week for a dry-docking …” That dry-dock work will include the replacement of hull plating, he said. Davis described the work as a “nonbudgeted operating expense.” SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll later said the work would cost less than $100,000, and therefore didn’t require a bid process. 

Davis punted when asked if the SSA has made any progress with the Martha’s Vineyard Farm Bureau in resolving farmer gripes over hay restrictions on ferries. “We’ll have to get back to you,” he said. 

Updated with additional details from the Steamship Authority board meeting.

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