Concessions, at least vending machine goodies, could be returning to Steamship Authority ferries in the middle of May. The idea of food trucks in the terminal parking lots was even floated, though it was never discussed in any detail.
During Tuesday’s SSA board meeting, general manager Robert Davis said the ferry line’s concession company, Centerplate, is looking for ways to begin providing some food and drinks on the ferries. He said it would likely be prepackaged foods that can be consumed on the outside decks during better weather.
The board didn’t take any action, but reacted mostly positively toward the idea of supplying food on the ferries again.
Centerplate is looking for some assurances because they need to hire back staff, Davis said.
It was one year ago that the company voluntarily agreed to stop serving customers on the ferry out of concern for their employees’ health.
Two board members — Robert Ranney and James Malkin — expressed concerns about what would happen if a member of the concession staff became ill with COVID-19.
“I have the concern that [Ranney] raised to more people, exposing more crews potentially to the COVID,” Malkin said.
Davis said it would be treated like any other crew member testing positive, though he pointed out that the hope is that more of the population will be vaccinated by the May 19 target date.
“It’s hard to believe it’s only been one year since this came to the forefront on our radar,” Davis said as he updated the board, as he always does at meetings these days, on COVID protocols that the SSA has in place — extra cleaning of buses, terminals, and ferries, as well as a mandatory mask order that’s difficult to enforce.
Ranney, who represents Nantucket on the board, said snacks are particularly important on the two-hour crossing between Hyannis and that island.
Davis said the SSA could be at a competitive disadvantage if Hy-Line offers snacks and the SSA doesn’t.
Old concerns resurface
Davis introduced the proposed 2022 schedule, and it’s much the same as it has been for the past couple of years, which means a 5:30 am ferry leaving Woods Hole for the Island that’s been objected to by residents who live along the route to the terminal.
The SSA has limited the size of the trucks, and uses the MV Governor so the trucks don’t have to back up, but that hasn’t quieted the critics.
Kathryn Wilson, the board’s chair and Falmouth’s representative, asked if anything could be done because of the traffic and noise issues. “It’s quite a bit different to say there’s no 5:30 as opposed to there’s a sort of quiet 5:30. Do you know what I’m saying?” Wilson said. “If we can trim that schedule a little bit, it would be much appreciated.”
Malkin said the demand remains on the Vineyard for the early-morning service. “I do think that as I work through this, this year, that the smaller trucks on this, that 5:30, do cut down the noise that’s bothersome to the people who are our neighbors in Woods Hole,” he said, noting that it’s larger trucks that use so-called “jake brakes.”
Barnstable representative Robert Jones said it’s not just Woods Hole that’s affected. He pointed out there is early morning traffic in Barnstable and Tisbury, as well. “It’s part of the system, and I don’t know how you mitigate that. We’ve got to meet the demand,” he said.
Wilson responded, asking, What’s the breaking point? “Does 4:30 am then become acceptable?”
She added there should be a larger conversation about making changes. “This is still an issue, and it’s not going to go away until we make some changes,” she said.
The schedule will be posted for public comment, and will go back to the board for a vote, Davis said.
Later in the meeting, the board voted 4-0 (New Bedford member Moira Tierney was absent) to support a letter being sent by the Falmouth select board to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to consider speed limits and signs on the road. The idea for the review by MassDOT originated at a task force meeting, according to Wilson.
In its only other vote of the day, the board voted 4-0 to accept Davis’s goals and to review his performance in meeting them in June. It would mean only a short glimpse, but it would put Davis back on track to be reviewed at the same time as other nonunion personnel.
At the outset of the meeting, the board heard from port council representative Eric Shufelt. Shufelt said the council is recommending a rainy day fund. However, the state Enabling Act requires that the rates charged for service cover the ferry line’s expenses. That would mean a hike in rates.
Davis said he would bring the item back as an agenda item.
During an update on ferry traffic, Davis reported that walk-on passengers remain off year-to-year. In comparing January 2021 to January 2020, which was prepandemic, both vehicle and truck traffic are up slightly, but passengers are down 19.4 percent, or 23,382 people.
During a discussion on the Woods Hole terminal project, Davis said the first glimpse of the latest designs for the buildings would be released later this week, on Friday, ahead of next Wednesday’s first public forum on the subject.
Mark Amundsen, the SSA’s director of marine operations, provided updates on two ferry projects. The MV Woods Hole recently returned, and is doing sea trials after undergoing $907,485 in dry-dock repairs, including a new fuel purifier system. The work included nearly $200,000 in change orders, with most of that work being attributed to recoating the freight deck, he said.
Meanwhile, the MV Governor repairs are just getting underway, Amundsen said. The price tag for those repairs is $808,000, and features steel work on the hull and a generator overhaul.
“A real workhorse,” Wilson said.
“She’s coming up on 70 years and a couple,” Amundsen said. “Amazing boat. There’s a lot of steel in her.”
Malkin asked about recent mechanical cancellations, and Amundsen assured him that the SSA has preventive maintenance under control. “We’re teed up for a successful year,” he said.
SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll gave a brief update on the website upgrade that’s planned. The ferry service is currently surveying customers, and more than 1,600 people have completed it, he said.
The SSA has budgeted $2 million for the project, but 80 percent of that will come from a federal grant, Driscoll said. The work includes $1.25 million for the website and $75,000 for the development of an app, he said.
A request for proposals is expected to go out in May, with hiring of a contractor by August or September, he said.