At its Wednesday meeting, the Dukes County Commission heard from Jim Malkin, who was appointed by the commission to represent the Vineyard on the Steamship Authority board, in response to concerns from commissioners and Vineyard residents about recent ferry operations.
At their August 17 meeting, commissioners emphasized the need for transparency among SSA reps, specifically Malkin. With what many Islanders have deemed as a ceaseless string of scheduling struggles and operational failures by the SSA, frustration spilled over to county commissioners, triggering them to engage Malkin for an update.
In a more mild-toned meeting on Wednesday, commissioners thanked Malkin for his continued representation. Malkin said as of the end of August, the SSA ran 11,407 trips on the Vineyard route (to and from Oak Bluffs and Tisbury). Out of the serviced trips, Malkin said 0.4 percent resulted in cancellations due to mechanical reasons. “That’s pretty good,” he said, especially compared to similar services, which he found report an average of 5 percent cancellations. “There are, however, specific areas that definitely need improvement.”
Malkin said he’s brought attention to many of the issues at the SSA and port council review session of general manager Bob Davis, who had recently received substantial praise and an 11.8 percent salary increase in his annual review, and recommended that people avail themselves of the publicly accessible Zoom meetings between the Island’s Port Council and the SSA board for a “comprehensive view in terms of what is going on, as well as what is being discussed and what is of concern to the board.”
Malkin said there is no indication of anyone trying to “deliberately mislead the public, but there [are] cross-communication issues.” Specific areas that need improvement, acknowledged Malkin, are the ways in which the SSA communicates “with Vineyarders and the traveling public,” in addition to internal SSA communication. He said the lack of effective communication “does not always result in a good traveling experience for all Vineyarders all the time.”
Malkin acknowledged additional concerns regarding SSA operations. “We need a continued focus on maintenance,” he said, “the management of our reservation system,” in addition to the ferries’ “on-time performance.”
In regard to SSA management, Malkin said he feels “the decisionmaking is too centralized,” and reiterated his advocacy for appointing a chief operating officer (COO) and filling that position in a timely manner. Interviews for the 10 applicants for the job are in the process of being scheduled.
During the annual review of Davis, Malkin noted that the Island’s port council (John Cahill and Joe Sollitto) gave the GM a relatively low rating, with the lowest rating given by Falmouth board member Peter Jeffrey, who relayed his main concern: “lack of a strategic plan.”
“I’m less concerned about strategic plans and more concerned about execution,” Malkin said. “My focus is on communication, informing the public, and increasing our ability to run boats on time and on schedule.”
Along with performing “preventive maintenance,” Malkin said, there has been a push for “stockpiling spare parts and retrofitting existing vessels with similar systems and components.” He advocated for similar vessels or “sister ships,” to make servicing, operating, and maintaining the boats more efficient. In addition to the recently authorized purchasing of two new vessels, Malkin said he’s been in communication with Sen. Julian Cyr in hopes of securing two more ships that are compatible with the ones being purchased.
Contingent upon having the funds to purchase the total four vessels, Malkin said, the sister ships are lower and enjoy “less windage,” which would be beneficial for inclement weather patterns and docking.
The prospective new ships are structured in a way that makes them suitable for electrification, and could be repowered as such “when and if electric vessels and the infrastructure necessary become available.”
In response to concerns raised regarding the online reservation system, Malkin said the SSA acknowledges that it needs “work,” and a more “active management of it.”
Commissioner Peter Wharton joked that next to pictures of food, the second most popular picture popping up on social media is of “empty boats.”
Malkin said director of shoreside operations Alison Fletcher is working to enable a callback feature to avoid long wait times. Frequent, extensive hold times when attempting to secure reservations, Malkin said, can be attributed to call volume and “lack of staff.”
Malkin acknowledged the current issues with the steamship’s website, when time slots are unclickable, but upon boarding, the boat is far from full. It’s “aggravating to all of us,” he said, and “problematic.” Various factors can complicate the reservation process, from ticketholders making an earlier boat, or failing to show up altogether.
Commission chair Christine Todd suggested that the county commissioners meet with Malkin on e regular basis to allow for “a steady stream of information that may alleviate some of the concerns of the public,” and to keep commissioners better informed of SSA’s doings.
Jim Malkin’s statement to the Dukes County Commission appears as an op-ed in this week’s MV Times.