The Steamship Authority is looking at ways to provide more last-minute trips for preferred customers from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, general manager Robert Davis told the SSA board Tuesday.
Davis said one of the initiatives on the Vineyard route is to suspend access to general customers to the 120 per day preferred spots set aside for Islanders until one day before the sailing date. Previously, up to 91 of the preferred spots could be reserved by Islanders seven days in advance, but any of those spots not taken up to three days before the trip could be reserved by general customers.
That program has been suspended for the rest of the season, Davis said. “The spaces are solely for those with excursion and preferred profiles up until the day before sailing,” he said.
The SSA has had more bookings further in advance, which has left Island customers competing for the 120 preferred spots set aside on the Vineyard crossings, Davis said.
“Yes, there is demand from people on the Island to get over and back on the same day,” James Malkin, the Vineyard’s representative on the board, said. “…Anything that we can do going forward and for the remainder of this rather crazy summer in terms of consumers behavior in restaurants and on ferries and probably everywhere to take some of the pressure off for the people who use the ferries as well as people as the people who service the people using the ferries would be a good thing.”
This summer Islanders have complained about the lack of access to travel on and off Island to the point where a petition was circulated seeking commuter-only ferry trips for Islanders. The petition wasn’t addressed during the meeting, but the need for more spots for Island residents was discussed.
Davis said the SSA is also looking at the issue long-term, which will take analyzing data.
During the discussion, Malkin raised the issue of traffic on Woods Hole Road and some Island customers not being able to get to the ferry in time to get on their reserved boats.
Malkin and chair Kathryn Wilson asked the SSA to consider staging some customers early for their reservations at the Palmer Avenue lot to ease some of the traffic in Woods Hole.
“Based on everything I’ve seen this year we’ve seen some behavior changes. People trying to go to the Vineyard showing up and going into standby, people trying to go to the Vineyard with reservations showing up early — in some cases, days or weeks early — and then people with open reservations trying to get on boats through standy,” Malkin said. “All of which makes it difficult for people to use the road, as well as people trying to make their own reservations on the time they’re supposed to be there.”
He asked about looking at reservation-only days or other alternatives.
“We also see the public safety aspect of this,” Davis said. Staff members try to keep the line moving and in some cases move vehicles into the staging area before sorting them out. “Some of these cases, the congestion occurs rather rapidly. It’s amazing where all these vehicles are coming from at one particular time.”
Alison Fletcher, director of shoreside operations, said there have been some staffing issues at the terminal that makes it difficult to keep traffic flowing. Next week another dock worker is leaving, which further exacerbates the lack of staff, she said.
“It’s not for a lack of our employees hustling up and down that hill trying to get those cars down,” she said. There’s a trend of people showing up early or with open tickets, she said.
Toward the end of Tuesday’s meeting, discussion returned to Woods Hole. Specifically, the board addressed a letter sent by the Falmouth select board that requested for another study on freight service from New Bedford to Martha’s Vineyard. Robert Jones, Barnstable’s representative, ticked off a list of studies that have been done on the topic.
The Falmouth letter also expressed the town’s strong opposition to 5:30 am freight boats out of Woods Hole, an issue that’s been contentious between the SSA and the town for several years.
Davis receives glowing review
Davis received his performance review from the SSA board with grades ranging from 90 to 100.
The 100 came from New Bedford representative Moira Tierney, who described herself as a frequent critic of Davis.
“I think I made a comment that Jesus Christ wouldn’t deserve 100,” Tierney said. “I’m so blown away by his ability to remain unflappable in circumstances that I think the vast majority of people in his position would not be able to work through similar circumstances.”
Tierney noted the pandemic, the ransomware attack, and that Davis doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for keeping the SSA running on time. “We’re lucky to have you and I don’t think you’re compensated anywhere near what you should be,” she said.
Davis’s pay was not actually discussed by the board in open session. SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll wrote in a text that the board came back after an executive session and voted to give Davis a 3% raise to his $180,232 per year salary.
Tierney set the tone for mostly positive feedback. Malkin, who gave Davis a score of 90, said that Davis should delegate more responsibility to his administrative staff. “I think Bob has done a terrific job with community outreach,” Malkin said, noting that people who don’t think so likely disagree with the answers Davis provides.
Davis thanked the board for the “kind comments” and then deflected. “I’m only as good as, not only the senior staff, but the frontline workers. It really is a team effort,” he said.
Tuesday’s meeting also started with a glowing review of the SSA’s financial records for 2020 by auditor RSM US representatives. Dan Bonnette and Valeri Colimon represented the firm stating that there “no significant weaknesses or material deficiencies found in the audit.” After having a recent history of audits that were delayed, Bonnette also praised the SSA administration for having financial information available for them to complete their work by April.
In other business, during what’s become a routine update on the Woods Hole terminal project from project manager Bill Cloutier, Wilson was critical of the canopies being installed leading to the ferry gangways.
“I had no idea that those canopies were going to be so big and massive,” Wilson said. “I never got that when I saw the original plans and when we talked about whether the view was going to be obscured by the building? There was never, ever any discussion about how much it was going to be blocked by the canopies themselves. I’m really disappointed.”
She added that she’s concerned about light pollution from them.
Davis said he recognizes the issue and is looking at ways for the lighting to be dimmed when vessels aren’t in port. “We are working on making sure there’s a timer system on the canopies,” he said. The agent will be able to activate them as the ferry is coming in and will be turned off after the ferry is reloaded or the operations are done for the night. “We need to make sure there is a sufficient amount of light for security at night,” he said.