The request to divert the 8:30 pm ferry from Oak Bluffs to Tisbury from August 26–28 in order to accommodate the high number of Beach Road Weekend off-Island concertgoers was met with a nondecision by the Oak Bluffs select board at its meeting Tuesday.
By opting to abstain from taking an official stance, the select board deferred the proposed diversion decision back to the Steamship Authority, which had already expressed distaste for the idea — essentially denying the request.
Although concerns about transporting the approximate 1,700 off-Island attendees were brought to the Steamship Authority back in February by event promoter Adam Espstein, Oak Bluffs board members expressed being overwhelmed by being put on the spot for a last-minute decision.
To accommodate the over 10,000 eventgoers, Epstein has secured nine charter boats and a fleet of 40 shuttle buses — many of which will now be dedicated to transporting the off-Island concert attendees to the 8:30 pm Oak Bluffs ferry terminal. Additionally, the concert’s end time has been pushed back to 8 pm for access to ferry departures to the mainland.
Epstein provided the select board with thoroughly analyzed data studies concerning transportation, traffic, and timing, in addition to offering to secure, at his cost, any further necessities in order to ensure a safe weekend. “What we’ve proved time and again with the festival,” said Epstein, “is that proper planning affords great opportunity.”
With shuttle loops circulating the Island, and other associated events taking place in different towns, Epstein said, “This is an equal opportunity for Island towns to be able to participate and generate commerce, and show people a good time.”
When speaking to The Times, Epstein expressed frustration over the (non)decision, and objected to comments about lack of planning on his part. On the request, “the Steamship did nothing,” he said. “They sat on it for months, and they didn’t address it until last week.”
Epstein’s initial correspondence in February did not make mention of a proposed ferry diversion, but sought collaboration with the SSA in mitigating any possible transportation problems. The request for the three-boat diversion was brought to SSA by Tisbury public safety chiefs, expressing avid support.
Tisbury Fire Chief Greg Leland told the select board that the diversion proposed is “to assist with what we found in June to be an issue of personnel.”
Leland said that after discussions with Tisbury Police Chief Christopher Habekost, Oak Bluffs Police Chief Jon Searle, and Fire Chief Nelson Wirtz, it was determined that transporting the approximately 1,700 attendees that will be heading back to the mainland at the end of each day would be “infeasible.”
“Moving that many people onto buses, bringing them to your town, and dumping them at your Steamship, creates a safety hazard for your town and ours,” Leland said. In the event that the 1,700 departing concertgoers are unable to make it off the Island, Leland said, “We’re going to end up with a substantial number of people that are without housing, without shelter, without sanitary facilities, and stuck on the Island overnight … that’s not a situation our town wants to be in, or your town wants to be in.”
Leland mentioned that Epstein had offered to reimburse Oak Bluffs for “any loss of embarkation fees.” He said many meeting attempts were made to further discuss the option with the SSA, but with no avail.
“It’s unfortunate that the SSA brought it to us,” said Oak Bluffs select board chair Ryan Ruley, noting the difficulty of appeasing both its Steamship rep and terminal management — on which the town relies heavily — and the board’s constituents. Ruley said the Oak Bluffs Business Association relayed its concerns about the rerouting in a letter to the town, citing concerns of losing foot traffic.
A major issue, Ruley said, is the SSA passengers that are not attending Beach Road Weekend, who may end up confused about the change in schedule, regardless of whether notifications are posted.
Additionally, if concertgoers are to walk to the Tisbury terminal, they would have to make their way through Five Corners, Ruley said, posing another possible safety hazard.
Despite Epstein’s commitment to providing any needed traffic officers, and concert employees strictly to manage the influx of passengers at the terminals, and lend assistance, the select board deferred to the Steamship.
Select board member Brian Packish, who stated he “fundamentally supports the request,” added, “It’s unfortunate that the conversation started in February, and only just got [to the select board].” Packish subsequently suggested the board “[defer] to the SSA and their expertise.” At the end of the day, he said to the SSA reps, “you know your business.”
“The reason why the Steamship Authority did not act on this,” said Vineyard SSA board member Jim Malkin, is because it “publishes its schedule [and] runs on its schedule.”
Malkin acknowledged existing concerns about the ferry boat scheduling and diversions, and asserted, “I was not going to sit in a meeting and vote to divert boats.”
“The Steamship Authority is not a passenger operation,” he said, adding that Epstein “perhaps oversold” the event, adding a burden to Island transportation.
Malkin said after meeting with Epstein, the SSA offered suggestions on how to alleviate the transportation concerns, including recommending alternatives.
“[The request] puts us all in a difficult position,” said Malkin, referring to the SSA, select board, and the O.B, community, “We have a strained infrastructure already, and we’re adding to the burden.”
Oak Bluffs port council member Joe Sollittto adamantly opposed the rerouting, deeming it “a bad practice,” with unfavorable consequences.
Ruley said the request backed the select board into a corner “just shy of a month prior to [the event]” with a safety title on it. “It’s a tough thing to swallow,” he said.
Although he believes it to be a mistake not to allow the diversions, the shuttles for Beach Road attendees will indeed provide safe and efficient transportation to the ferry terminals. Despite the hurdles and recent setback, Epstein emphasized, “We want everyone to have a good time … It’s music under the sun, in a park. How benign can that be?”