SSA is performing ‘pretty well’

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I am here to give you an update on the Steamship Authority at the end of a very busy summer. Through August 2022, 11,406 trips, of 11,677 scheduled and available, operated on the Vineyard route — with just 0.46 percent of those trips canceled for mechanical reasons, or only 4.6 trips per thousand. This year through August, 54 trips have been canceled for mechanical reasons, and 116 for weather reasons. Given the well-documented problems of the transportation industry during the time of COVID-19 — look at the airlines, the MBTA, and other ferry systems around the country — the SSA has performed, all in all, pretty well.

There are specific areas that need improvement, which I went into at length during the general manager review by the members and the Port Council. As I stated then, the SSA needs improvement in the way it communicates with the traveling public and the way the SSA communicates internally. The SSA also needs continued focus on maintenance, on its on-time performance, and on its management of the reservation system. I stated then, as I have for the past 2½ years and reiterate now, that decisionmaking is too centralized in the general manager, and that a chief operating officer (COO) is necessary. Thankfully, the authority has 10 applicants for the position, and is scheduling interviews.

Due to these issues, I gave the CEO the second-lowest rating of the five board members. The Vineyard’s Port Council members, John Cahill and Joe Sollitto, rated him similarly.

The director of marine operations position was recommended in the HMS Consulting report. The board and Port Council members have encouraged stockpiling of spare parts and retrofitting existing vessels with similar systems and components. We have supported increased preventive maintenance. We believe the authority needs to extend the list of items that are covered in both vessel and dockside preventive maintenance work, and that replacement parts need to be staged closer to the terminals. Maintenance is a particular challenge, since no two vessels are alike, and there is a reason for this: The Vineyard wants drive-through vessels, such as the MV Martha’s Vineyard, the MV Woods Hole, the MV Island Home, and the MV Governor. Nantucket, meanwhile, wants single-enders, because it is believed that those are more efficient during longer voyages. In accommodating both routes, stockpiling spare parts has become more of a challenge. Also, in an effort to keep costs down, the SSA has often purchased used vessels and converted them for our routes. A prime example is our vessel the MV Governor, which was purchased from the Coast Guard for $1. A new double-ender today would cost approximately $90 million. So, by saving money on the purchase of vessels, maintenance has become more challenging. The two new vessels are sister ships, and if grant money is available, there are additional sister ships available for purchase. These ships have been selected for a number of criteria, one of which is their ability to be fitted for alternative fuel sources.

Regarding timeliness and cancellations: I have received numerous complaints about vessels not leaving on time and the rate of cancellations. These issues are genuine concerns. Having said that, the SSA cancellation rate is significantly under 5 percent, which is about the industry standard. John Cahill, Joe Sollitto, and I should be notified anytime a vessel is canceled or late. That said, SSA is dealing with a reservations system that the SSA acknowledges needs active management and work. It is looking to source a “call back” system so people do not need to stay on hold with the Reservation Office. Since last summer, SSA has reviewed the number of spaces held for Island residents, has sent informational brochures as inserts to Islanders, and has issued clarifying fact sheets on reservation policies and process. One issue that the M.V. representatives bring up constantly is the mystifying situation of no available spaces shown for trips on the website, and then spaces are available on the boats when they depart. SSA continues to deal with this issue, and this is partially a function of vehicles leaving on earlier boats (either by taking earlier trips and/or not showing up), making space available closer to the time of departure, and the compounding impact when reserved truck space is not used and that three-car space is now empty. This is confusing and distressing to Islanders who rely upon the boats for travel to/from the mainland.

The Vineyard is represented by a team: me and the port council members from Oak Bluffs and Tisbury. We are in frequent communication, and always try to speak with one Vineyard voice. I encourage interested islanders to join the Port Council and board Zoom meetings to learn and follow the process and issues facing the Steamship Authority.

 

James Malkin is the Dukes County appointee to the Steamship Authority board. Malkin gave these remarks at the county commission’s meeting on Thursday, Sept. 8.

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