The Steamship Authority board received a report from general manager Robert Davis on Tuesday about ferry diversions requested by the town of Tisbury. Davis said the town wanted an 8:30 pm ferry diverted from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven to offset an expected high volume of departing concertgoers.
The Beach Road Weekend music festival is scheduled for Veterans Memorial Park from August 26 to 28. The diversions would cover all three nights. Davis said the town framed the request as a matter of “public safety.” He said the hope was for people to “walk from the festival to the ferry, rather than shuttling approximately 800 people to Oak Bluffs in about 30 minutes.”
“While it’s been verbally relayed to the staff that emergency services in Oak Bluffs supports this diversion request,” Davis said, “staff is recommending that we reach out to the Oak Bluffs select board … to determine if the town of Oak Bluffs similarly supports this diversion plan.”
Vineyard board member Jim Malkin took issue with the request to divert the 8:30 pm boats.
Over the winter, the SSA was approached by concert promoter Adam Epstein with a request for additional trips to accommodate the concert series, Malkin said.
“After much discussion,” Malkin said, “we made it very clear that the Steamship Authority is not a charter operation for individual businesses or events …”
Malkin went on to say the SSA couldn’t rearrange its schedules, crew availability, and dock availability, and instead offered to refer Epstein to SSA licensees for chartering or other arrangements.
“Now despite that conversation in the winter,” Malkin said, “tickets continued to be sold, the event continued to be promoted, and we now are informed that there are large numbers of people who apparently at the end of this late-August-heavy-season-time for the Vineyard, will be looking to get off the Island to go to Falmouth or Hyannis or a combination.”
Malkin added that Epstein was informed the SSA would not accept bulk passenger reservations, and it was suggested the festival might consider limiting ticket sales.
Malkin emphasized that both he and Oak Bluffs port council member Joe Sollittto have gotten an earful from the Oak Bluffs select board and others about diversions for weather and mechanical problems that have already affected embarkation fees and local commerce.
“I find it disappointing that we’re now in a situation where apparently there may be a public safety issue raised by the number of tickets that have been presold to people — to an Island where transportation is problematic,” Malkin said.
Epstein disputed what Malkin said during Tuesday’s SSA meeting. He told The Times that at the time of his conversation with Malkin, advance packages were already sold out. After learning there was no way to add a second ferry at 9:30 pm, Beach Road Weekend changed its ending time to 8 pm, so that customers would have two ferry options off-Island, Epstein told The Times.
Malkin said he would have difficulty backing the diversions unless the Oak Bluffs select board sees merit in the public safety assertion.
Peter Jeffrey, Falmouth’s representative on the board, said he “completely” agreed with Malkin.
Jeffrey said he had concerns about what effect the increased traffic the festival generated would have in Falmouth. Jeffrey criticized the music festival for what appeared to be a lack of coordination with Oak Bluffs or Falmouth.
“Absent an absolute public safety necessity,” Jeffrey said, “I would oppose changing and diverting the ferry.”
Barnstable representative Robert Jones concurred with Jeffrey and Malkin. “I can’t support this,” Jones said.
Chair Moira Tierney, New Bedford’s representative, said it seemed Davis had an answer from the board.
Davis said staff would find out what the town of Oak Bluffs’ position was on the matter.
“Do we even want to go that far?” Tierney asked. She cautioned it might leave the music festival feeling “somewhat optimistic.”
Davis didn’t precisely respond to Tierney’s question, but instead said he hoped staff could get a “quick response” from Oak Bluffs.
“Well, I’ll leave that in your capable hands, ” Tierney said.
Both Oak Bluffs Fire Chief Nelson Wirtz and Oak Bluffs Police Chief Jonathan Searle later confirmed they were in support of the diversions. Chief Searle said the alternative, bringing busloads of people to Oak Bluffs in a “rushed manner,” wasn’t a good idea. Chief Wirtz said that among other benefits, diverting to Tisbury is “also quicker, and there’s less moving parts.”
Oak Bluffs select board chair Ryan Ruley said he would reserve comment until he sees what information the SSA sends to the town.
Tisbury Police Chief Chris Habekost and Tisbury Fire Chief Greg Leland later both said they were in support of the diversions.
Chief Habekost cautioned that without the diversions, the possibility of having a lot of stranded people existed.
Chief Leland said Tisbury emergency officials have had meetings with their counterparts in Oak Bluffs, and have come to the conclusion the diversions are both “necessary” and “appropriate,” but also that there is a need to plan so such a logistics situation doesn’t reoccur.
“It’s unfortunate we have to ask this of the Steamship Authority,” Chief Leland said.
He also said he previously tried to arrange to come before the SSA board to ask for the diversions, but was unable to make any headway.
Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande later said he reached out to the SSA after hearing concerns from Chief Habekost and Chief Leland.
Grande didn’t find the diversion request particularly extraordinary. “They do promote people to visit the Island, so they need to get them off as well,” Grande said.
Epstein later said the diversions are needed despite the music festival having a fleet of 40 shuttle buses on hand. The “safest solution,” he said, was to have folks walk down to the SSA terminal in Vineyard Haven, rather than stuffing them on buses with a ticking clock. He said it was safer for the concertgoers and for the first responders, and an effort to not only welcome folks to the Vineyard but to “show them off with grace, comfort, and safety.”
“This is no different a challenge than a weather-related issue or a mechanical issue,” Epstein said.
Nonetheless, Epstein said, he was willing to compensate Oak Bluffs for any embarkation fees lost to the diversions.
Epstein said based on collected data, about 2,600 people for each day of the concert will be headed back to off-Island accommodations.
Epstein said that “the alternative” to three nights of diversions “presents challenges that I don’t think anybody wants to see.”
Beach Road Weekend wouldn’t be setting an event-related precedent if diversions were authorized. On Wednesday, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll told The Times ferries are diverted for the Oak Bluffs fireworks “due to the road closures” associated with the event.