SSA is not acting like a lifeline


To the Editor:

In your April 28 editorial (“Moran’s missteps”), you argue that Senator Moran is naive for introducing a bill that gives donor port communities a meaningful say in Steamship Authority operations, and you repeat the myth that the SSA is a “lifeline.” Your concerns about sharing control seem to be rooted in the sense that if non-Island communities have a say, we will treat concerns from the islands no better, and with no more finesse, than the Island-run SSA has treated our concerns in Falmouth and Woods Hole over the past several decades. Your comments suggest blithe acceptance of business as usual by the SSA, and the persistent and growing problems it has brought to the Cape and islands.

Here is some context.

The SSA’s regulatory function is compromised by the fact that it is also a business — a business that gets to decide with the force of law whether it will allow competition with itself, and so it doesn’t. Instead, it calls itself a “lifeline,” bungles its service so it leaves thousands of people stranded on both sides of Vineyard Sound, and prohibits competition that would in fact provide the lifeline that SSA isn’t. Two decades ago, the SSA set up impossible legal obstacles

to a private shipper — Craig Johnson — who, at his own financial risk, was otherwise prepared to ship freight to Martha’s Vineyard from New Bedford. Fast-forward a decade, and Ralph Packer was outcompeting the SSA with a combination of service and rates for freight from New

Bedford that the SSA couldn’t match, so what did the SSA do? SSA dragged him into court and stopped him. Two decades, and the SSA has killed off two lifelines to the Vineyard, and discouraged the development of who knows how many other lifelines, all to feed itself

to comfortably plump. SSA is the Anti-Lifeline.

SSA’s insurance policy against a business failure is its power to shake down the taxpayers of the towns in which it operates. SSA uses the threat of a shakedown to justify its longstanding practice of stomping out competition and otherwise doing whatever it wants to do to feed itself. If SSA can’t make ends meet, it needs to do what every other business does, which is to manage itself better or file for bankruptcy and let its creditors decide how to make it work. The taxpayer underwriting of the SSA needs to go.

SSA defends its operations, including its wee-hours-of-the-morning freight boats out of Woods Hole, as a matter of “life and death,” yet it continues to use its legal power, given to it by the enabling act, to stomp out one lifeline after another, so as to ensure its own hegemony in the matter. This “lifeline” and “life and death” thing that the SSA keeps talking about is all about the SSA keeping itself alive and comfortable, and certainly not about the people it has forced to be dependent on itself.

None of these insights are coming from Island representatives to the SSA. Furthermore, Susan Moran is doing here what we would expect from a public official: thinking of people on the islands, thinking of people on the mainland, thinking about what has happened in the past, and thinking about what needs to happen in the future.

John Woodwell
Woods Hole