One-third of the Steamship Authority’s fleet is nearing obsolescence, particularly the SSA’s freight ferries the Katama, Gay Head, and Sankaty, according to a study conducted by the Marine Safety Consultants.
At a meeting on Tuesday, the SSA’s board heard the report through general manager Robert Davis. Vessels typically only have a life expectancy of 35 years and all three of the ferries mentioned are more than 40 years old, Davis said.
It’s becoming difficult to repair the bow thrusters on the Katama and Gay Head because the company that manufactured them no longer makes the parts, Mark Amudsen, director of marine operations for the SSA, said.
Peter Jeffrey, Falmouth’s representative to the board, said the SSA needs a strategic plan for vessel replacement. “I think this is very useful information but a little harrowing to see that it appears that a third of our fleet will be obsolete in three years and we’ll need to replace 50 percent in seven,” he said. “We need to have a strategic vision of how we’re going to go about replacing these vessels.”
Incredibly, the MV Governor, the SSA’s oldest freight boat at 68 years, has a longer life expectancy.
Another ferry that is fast approaching its usefulness is the MV Nantucket, which is approaching 50 years old. According to the survey, it has about seven years of life left.
Earlier in the meeting, Amudsen issued a report on repairs that the Nantucket is currently undergoing. The $1.7 million in repairs includes deck coatings, a fire detection system, blasting and coating the hull, and repairs to the propulsion shaft, Amundsen told the board.
Later, during the discussion of the obsolescence report, Davis said there comes a point when they have to determine what to do. “We will be coming to a need to make a determination of whether it’s worth it to replace the steel or replace the vessel,” Davis said. Davis told the board there could be an opportunity to purchase vessels for cents on the dollar from the offshore oil exploration industry, which has slowed considerably. “There’s an opportunity to leverage that,” he said.
Financing for a new vessel would be an issue because the SSA does not have the bonding capacity, Davis acknowledged. “It’s a balancing act in terms of our financing and need for service,” Davis said.
Board member and Vineyard representative James Malkin said he would like the SSA administration to look for new vessels that are similar in propulsion systems and overall designs so that there is some duplication when it comes to maintenance and training.
Asked if the multimillion dollar Woods Hole terminal project is handcuffing the SSA’s bonding capacity, Davis said that project accounts for about half of the $67 million the SSA currently has bonded. Earlier in the meeting, the board heard an update on the Woods Hole terminal project. The waterside work has been completed and finished up at $59.5 million — $16 million over the contract price much of that due to change orders. The SSA’s bonding capacity is $100 million, which means there’s not enough capacity to have a new ferry built given that the cost of the Woods Hole, the SSA’s most recently built ferry, cost $46 million to build.
The SSA is also looking at alternative propulsion technologies — like electrification — but has not received the results of that study, he said.
In other business, the SSA board hit the pause button on licensing a freight service that would allow Nantucket to get its UPS deliveries this summer via New Bedford. The board wants more information about how much the licensing fee would be, what the loss of that freight would mean to the SSA, and some financial information about the company 41 North Offshore.
Moira Tierney, the board chair and New Bedford’s representative, made it clear to 41 North Offshore representative Jonah Mikutowicz, that this isn’t a reflection on the idea, just the lack of information brought to the board by SSA administration.
The freight service was concocted after UPS missed getting freight reservations on summer reservations to Nantucket. UPS has managed to get enough reservations to and from Martha’s Vineyard.
A public hearing was held prior to Tuesday morning’s meeting, but Davis said there was no public comment. He did get a letter from state Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, who asked that it be written into the licensing agreement that the freight service not include any waste or hazardous material.
Mikutowicz said he’s hopeful the five-month service can be a viable alternative to the SSA.
It was Jeffrey who suggested hitting the pause button asking if management was asking the board “to give management a blank check to write a license.”
Tierney asked to see the company’s financial statements. “I’m totally in support of the concept overall, but I think it’s premature to have us vote on this,” she said.
Malkin concurred. “We need due diligence, a draft agreement, and how Rep. Straus’ concerns get addressed in that agreement,” he said.
Tierney said she may call a meeting of the board before next month’s scheduled meeting so that 41 North can make the necessary adjustments to its barges for docking at the SSA slips on Nantucket.
“You’re not getting a negative response,” Tierney assured Mikutowicz. “We just want more information before we take a vote of this sort.”
Meanwhile, the board received an update on RFPs that were issued to provide freight service to and from Martha’s Vineyard. That service is in response to complaints from Woods Hole residents about early-morning ferries, noise, and congestion in their village.
Davis told the board that the RFPs have already generated more than 20 companies interested in seeing the specifications. The process is in the early stages and bids aren’t due until August and won’t be acted upon until late September, he told the board.
Work is wrapping up on dock repairs in Oak Bluffs. The $1.4 million project includes wrapping 236 pilings with a protective wrap, Amudsen said. Six new pilings have also been installed and the project should be completed by April 29.
Jeffrey asked how long the pilings will last. Amudsen said he expects the pilings, now that they’ve been either replaced or wrapped, will last 20 to 25 years.
Davis pointed out that the Oak Bluffs pier takes punishing blows from the weather because of its location. “It’s something that requires annual maintenance.”
In other business, Davis updated the board on the 2023 schedule which is similar to the 2022 schedule in the hours and number of vessels that are scheduled to make crossings. He said public notices have gone out for feedback on the schedules.
The board also heard an update on the new website and mobile app that are currently under construction. Board members urged functionality over flash, particularly when it comes to boat schedules and communication of any delays or cancellations. “We’re looking for this tool to improve the user experience,” Malkin said.
The board also put a pause on approving a waiver for Centerplate, the concession company, not to meet its minimum payment requirements under its current five-year contract citing problems caused by the pandemic.
But when Jeffrey noted that customer traffic is back close to pre-pandemic levels, he questioned the need to give the waiver without getting any other financial consideration from the company.
Davis said the company lost some employees due to the vaccine requirement and has had some supply chain issues as well.
Finally, Davis said the mask mandate remains in effect for the SSA vessels despite a federal judge lifting the federal mandate for public transportation. Davis said the U.S. Coast Guard has not yet lifted the requirement, which is what the ferry service is following.
Tuesday’s meeting started with a moment of silence for George Balco, the long time Port Council member from Vineyard Haven who recently died.