Vehicle reservations for May, June, July, and August on Steamship Authority ferries are far outpacing the reservations for 2019, the year before the coronavirus pandemic — an indication that Martha’s Vineyard is about to see crowds like it’s never seen before.
SSA treasurer Mark Rozum did not provide any data about April ferry trips and reservations during his planned presentation, which caused James Malkin, the SSA’s Vineyard representative, to stop discussion of approving procurement contracts to request more information from Rozum about ferry traffic and reservations.
“I ask that because I’ve been getting considerable pressure about the lack of vehicle [reservation] availability since our schedule has been unchanged for about four years in terms of capacity,” Malkin said.
That’s when Rozum put up a slide during the Zoom meeting that showed reservations up 16 percent overall compared with 2019, and obviously way ahead of the 2020 pandemic-plagued travel stats.
July is seeing the most reservations, with 52,244 compared with 46,078 in 2019 and just 37,533 in 2020.
“That would bear with the pressure I’m getting,” Malkin said upon seeing those numbers.
Falmouth representative Kathryn Wilson asked if there are enough ferries scheduled to meet the demand.
“We’re looking at all the allocations on trips to make sure we’re allocating the spaces appropriately,” general manager Robert Davis said. Trucks are scheduled on vessels other than the Island Home, for example, so that the SSA’s largest vessel can use its lift decks to accommodate more vehicles, he said.
The numbers show that Islanders are not leaving the Vineyard as much as people are going to the Island. Excursion rates have lagged throughout the pandemic, according to updates provided by Rozum and Davis.
Excursion rates — the reduced costs paid by year-round Island residents — only pay about 25 percent of the operating expense for their space on a ferry, while other vehicles pay for 100 percent of their operating expenses.
Rozum during his presentation on the April numbers said while vehicle trips were up overall to the Vineyard that month, there were 1,300 fewer excursion trips — an indication that Islanders are staying put more than they did in 2019.
Davis also reported that walk-on passengers were still down 15.4 percent between January and March compared with 2019, but vehicle traffic was up about 1 percent for the first three months of 2021.
That bodes well for the ferry service. “It seems like we’re on a more even keel,” Wilson said. “Better than we were a year ago.”
In the spring of 2020, the SSA’s passenger traffic was off so much that ferry crossings were removed from the schedule, and there was talk of a state bailout that ultimately was never needed because of federal stimulus money.
The MV Governor will return to service on Wednesday. As the board met on Tuesday, the Governor was undergoing sea trials in Fairhaven after receiving $1.3 million in maintenance, including repairs to its rudder and shaft, blasting and painting its undercoating, and overhaul of its generator, according to Mark Amundsen, SSA’s director of marine operations. The repairs were nearly $300,000 over budget due to the extensive rudder work and the antifouling paint on the vessel’s underside, Amundsen told the board.
Still, the freight ferry got praise from the board, with Moira Tierney referring to it as a “warhorse.”
“It’s celebrating its 67th year this year,” Davis said.
“Probably the most popular boat on Martha’s Vineyard,” Malkin said.
Meanwhile, the board approved $1.4 million for drydock repairs on the MV Martha’s Vineyard scheduled for the fall at Thames Shipyard. The work will include maintenance on the bow thrusters, an air compressor, and superstructure coating. The low bid came in about $400,000 over budget because of the amount of area that needed to be blasted and recoated, Rozum said.
During public comment, Leon Brathwaite criticized the lack of signage inside the ferry’s elevator, despite an $18 million refurbishment completed three years ago. “We’ve spent [millions] to do work to that boat, and yet you can’t spend $100 to put a sign up,” he said. “I just get frustrated only because I know which floor to get off, but any other citizen who needs to use that elevator for the first time doesn’t know it.”
Davis said the boat is in a spruce-up period. “I’m getting an indication it will be taken care of,” he said.
“That’s what was said two years ago, Bob,” Brathwaite said. “I know it’s a little thing, but it’s the little things that add up. I think if you take care of the little things, the big things won’t happen.”
In other business, Davis said the mask and face-covering rules remain in effect for the ferries and ferry terminals under guidance provided by Gov. Charlie Baker’s office. He said he expects to hear from the state before the next meeting on June 15 whether they can return to in-person sessions. A Nantucket resident made a plea for the board to continue offering meetings via Zoom so the public can easily participate.
The board heard an update on the Woods Hole terminal construction project. Bill Cloutier, project manager, said cost overruns on the project are at 21 percent due in large part to problems with driving monopiles. He added that the project is about 85 percent complete, but work on Slip 1 is not expected to be completed by the June deadline. The contractor, Jay Cashman, stops working at the site during the busy summer months.
In a 4-1 vote with Tierney opposed, the SSA board approved a $180,000 change order for Cashman’s work, and expects more in the coming months because of difficulty driving the monopiles.
Davis said BIA.Studios, the architects for the terminal building, are working through feedback received from the first public hearing, and he expects a second session to be scheduled in the next month or two.