A petition drive launched by Edgartown restaurant owner Christian Thornton is calling for the Steamship Authority to add a late-night Steamship Authority ferry during the busy tourist season so the Island can attract off-Island hospitality workers.
As of Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after the petition was launched, it already had more than 100 signatures, and by Monday morning, that had grown to more than 225.
“Everywhere on Martha’s Vineyard, proprietors of hotels and restaurants will tell you that the housing shortage on-Island is forcing a never-ending escalation of cost and effort to house their staff,” Thornton, who owns the upscale Atria restaurant in Edgartown, wrote.
In a subsequent comment, Thornton appears to believe the petition will automatically launch a need for a public hearing. That’s not the case, according to SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll responding to a question about whether a hearing on the issue would be automatic. In a text message to The Times, he wrote, “It needs to be within 30 days of us advertising the schedules, it has to be residents of a port community, it has to be delivered to us, etc.”
According to the petition, the lack of affordable rentals on the Island due to the short-term rental market has forced restaurant and hotel owners to purchase housing for their staff.
In the past two years, with the housing market on the Island surging, the median home price has gone from $800,000 to $1.2 million. That has spurred a renewed push for more affordable and workforce housing on the Island, which resulted in a Housing Bank winning in a landslide at town meetings and in town elections. The Housing Bank still requires legislative approval, which remains a wild card.
“If the Steamship Authority were to offer a vessel to Woods Hole from the Island each evening after 11:30 pm, these businesses would have the opportunity to employ both Islanders and mainlanders who could fill open positions on-Island and commute back and forth to Woods Hole like so many commuters across the U.S.,” the petition states. “The Steamship Authority currently offers an opportunity in their schedule that effectively serves as a thoroughfare for the construction and building trades people who live off-Island and commute to M.V. every day to work.”
The petition cites Martha’s Vineyard Commission research that shows hospitality and tourism workers represent the largest percentage of workers on the Vineyard. “The hospitality industry is currently poorly served by the Steamship schedule, which ends at 9:30 pm each night. So it is clear that the tourism element of the economy could see significant benefit if the Island’s businesses could gainfully have access to a larger pool of potential workers residing on the Cape,” the petition states.
The petition goes on to urge the SSA to help solve the issue. “The Steamship has, in its power, the ability to dramatically improve the lives and lower the cost of living for Islanders everywhere by doing its part to reduce the need to house hospitality industry employees on the Island, which will create lots of potential housing inventory for Vineyard families to remain in their winter homes,” the petition states. “We call for the Steamship Authority to serve the Island that we live on, raise our families, and serve with passion every day. The SSA needs to do its part to support the largest part of the Island economy, and add a single passage nightly from Martha’s Vineyard to Woods Hole, after 11 pm, for hospitality workers from Memorial Day through Labor Day each summer …”
The petition mechanism has been used frequently by Woods Hole residents to question the need for 5:30 am freight boats. Despite their push to have the SSA eliminate those early-morning crossings, the SSA has held firm that they are needed to supply goods to the Island. It has led to some changes, including restricting the times that trucks arrive in Woods Hole, and using ferries that don’t require trucks to back onto the freight deck.
The SSA administration is aware of the petition drive, James Malkin, who represents the Island on the SSA board, told The Times. He said given the vocal opposition to early-morning boats, he sees a late-night boat into Woods Hole as a nonstarter.
“Our friends from Falmouth would not welcome late-night service there,” Malkin said. “The other issue is staffing and hours of service for the Steamship Authority crews.”
Indeed, there has already been some pushback from Woods Hole residents. In an email to The Times, shared with other Woods Hole residents as well, Damien Kuffler wrote that the petition raises a lot of questions that need to be addressed — whether vehicles will be allowed, whether there is any evidence that it would open up housing on the Island to other individuals, and whether potential commuters have been consulted.
“In conclusion, while the proposal appears logical and beneficial superficially, there is no logic or transparency. Therefore, before any additional late-night runs to and from the Vineyard are formally considered, all the details associated with them must be presented along with assurances for the workers and mainland residents,” Kuffler wrote. “Assurances would be compensation to the workers, and no late freight passing through Woods Hole. In addition, it must also be made clear that any additional runs would not lead to further negative impacts on workers and long-term residents of either the Vineyard or the Cape.”
The SSA continues to talk with its licensees — HyLine, SeaStreak, and Island Queen, among them — about additional crossings. New Bedford might be the more logical choice for any late-night commuter ferry, Malkin said.
In a conversation with The Times Monday, Thornton said he used the petition as a conversation starter. “I’m not an expert on the matter. I understand feasibility studies have to happen. I’m recognizing the housing crisis and labor crisis, and hoping we can start a dialogue to fix this situation,” he said. This summer has been particularly difficult. For every worker he hires, another one can’t accept a position because there’s simply no place to live.
Housing has been lost to the short-term rental market. “I don’t have hard data. So many rooms and homes have been taken out of the equation,” he said. “They’ve changed hands, some used for vacation renters.” Thornton said he would have a lot of applicants for jobs, but when it came to finding a place to live, it would limit the choices. “I don’t think it’s unique to me.”
The idea was spurred by seeing tradesmen commuting to the Island on early-morning ferries.
“I’m interested in our community kicking around the idea of essentially a commuter rail,” Thornton said. “Our commuter rail floats. I know there are issues with Woods Hole. New Bedford could be the answer.”
Malkin said he wishes petitioners would come to him, or port councilors John Cahill in Vineyard Haven or Joseph Sollitto in Oak Bluffs, rather than launching petition drives. Regardless, he said, the SSA will continue to look at options. “It would help to come to us directly rather than going online with petitions,” Malkin said.
Updated to provide more information. -Ed.