SSA task force reads RFP tea leaves

With no proposals, alternative freight service is uncertain.

With no bids for off-Cape freight service, it’s back to the drawing board for the SSA. -Rich Saltzberg

Despite casting a wide net for maritime haulers to establish an off-Cape–Martha’s Vineyard freight route, the Steamship Authority has been unable to bring any prospect aboard. Sought in large part to ameliorate the volume of heavy vehicles transiting through Woods Hole en route to the Vineyard, the alternate freight route idea has been a routine demand of Woods Hole residents. 

As The Times previously reported, SSA general manager Robert Davis said in August he was let down, yet also hopeful, in the wake of receiving zero proposals. “I am obviously disappointed that we did not receive any proposals for off-Cape freight service for Martha’s Vineyard, especially after the many hours dedicated to preparing the RFP by our staff and community stakeholders,” Davis said. “I firmly believe we issued an RFP that was clear, fair, and flexible. I continue to believe that this new freight service can become a long-term part of the marine transportation network that helps us fulfill our statutory duty of providing adequate transportation of persons and the necessaries of life for the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.”

On Thursday, the SSA’s Long Range Transportation Task Force took a deep dive into RFP recipients’ reasoning for eschewing bids. After it was issued, the complexity of the 74-page RFP was criticized by Woods Hole residents, Sayers noted. Additionally, he said Woods Hole residents claimed the RFP wasn’t widely publicized. However, Sayers said, it was placed in a number of nautical publications, including an advertisement placed in the maritime industry magazine Marine Log, which twice emailed notice of the RFP to about 20,000 subscribers. Sayers said he believed anybody who could have provided the requested freight service was made aware of the opportunity. Sayers also said that earlier on, several tweaks were made to the RFP, including the implementation of a suggestion by frequent SSA critic Nat Trumbull — to make an allowance for the conveyance of cars.

“We tried our best,” SSA special counsel Steve Sayers told task force members. “It’s discouraging that people felt afterward that it was too complex or too restrictive, and that they did not present those comments beforehand. We have been asked to go back to the drawing board [and craft] an RFP that will attract attention from potential shippers that are known to be out there.”

Sayers said a half-dozen recipients offered the SSA feedback on why they essentially ghosted. 

“We did ask firms who received copies of the RFP why they did not submit proposals,” Sayer said. “We sent an email to everyone. And we got six responses. And my concern was that one of the reasons they feel they did not have a place on the mainland from which to provide the service.”

However, Sayers noted, that didn’t turn out to be a concern of the people who gave feedback.

“Instead one of them said they felt it was too far outside its core business,” Sayer said. “Another one said that they had not had any experience with a daily scheduled run between two points. They felt they would not be able to do that. And that they did not want to pay the Steamship Authority to provide the service — although I note that we were not asking for any license fees for the service. We asked people what they would propose to pay us if they wanted to use our reservation system or our terminal. They also said they may be willing to provide the service if they were paid to provide it, in addition to receiving the consumer ticket revenues. But again, a subsidized service was not part of the RFP.”

Sayers went on to say concern offshore wind developers were gobbling up vessels that would be useful for such a venture was expressed. 

“Others felt that there is also a competitive demand for vessels by offshore wind developers,” Sayers said. “Another prospective proponent said they didn’t submit a proposal due to multiple aspects. They have other capital expenditure projects. They have significant, high operating costs, personnel constraints. They thought others would underbid the service using newer-vintage offshore supply vessels.”

Sayers said “ironically,” the next person who gave feedback, someone who considered using an offshore supply vessel, discovered the cost to outfit such a vessel was cost-prohibitive. “So they were outguessing each other, it appears,” Sayers said. 

“There was one proponent from Quincy who thought the distance from Quincy would not be realistic,” Sayers said. “And there was another one who thought that the profitability would be difficult [with] this service, and that it would be operating on a low budget.”

Sayers pointed out “none” of those who provided feedback criticized the RFP itself.

Sayers said the SSA made an effort to confer with barge companies. “We also talked directly with the two barge operators in New Bedford,” he said, “because those are the two prospective proponents who actually have facilities in New Bedford — that would not have to find them. And 41 North Offshore has stated that it did not feel that a regularly scheduled freight barge service would be financially feasible. It is still interested in providing on-demand freight service, somewhat as a supplement to the Steamship Authority’s, and especially since it has modified one of its barges to fit within our transfer bridges when it was providing that service for Nantucket this summer. So that’s something that we can continue to discuss with them about that type of additional service in the future.”

The other barge outfit the SSA spoke with was Ralph Packer’s Tisbury Towing and Transportation, which like 41 North Offshore, has a waterfront facility in New Bedford. 

“Tisbury Towing and Transportation stated that it is more interested in the bailed trash hauling opportunities that has been the subject of a meeting of the task force a year or two ago. And that’s something also, that I would point out that [Tisbury] Towing and Transportation does not need a license from the authority in order to provide. That’s something that Tisbury Towing would be able to discuss and negotiate with the refuse districts themselves and with others. They have the facilities. They would have to get the equipment. That is something that would be an Island issue, more than a Steamship Authority issue.”

Port Council member John Cahill asked if the SSA could create a business model that shows all the cost associated with the proposed freight service: “We’d be better off knowing what those numbers are,” Cahill said. 

Davis said there were a lot of variables that would have to be considered in such a model. 

Falmouth select board member Doug Brown asked if figures and other data from past freight studies were still available. 

Sayers said some were, and what wasn’t could be reconstructed to fill in the gaps. 

Sayers pointed out proposals for the SSA’s strategic plan contractor were due Oct. 4, and perhaps the strategic plan could aid the freight route process. 

“That may be a way to fold this into that — those services that are going to be provided by that consultant to talk about where we go from here,” Sayers said. Sayers also said the New Bedford Port Authority has a new executive director, and a meeting with that person is in the works. 

“Our concern was that without the availability of a mainland port facility, that people would not be interested,” Sayers said. “It’s even potentially more concerning that people didn’t list that as a reason — that they listed the profitability of it as being questionable, and it being a low-budget operation. I think that points more in the future that this is really a regional issue that at some point if you’re going to have an alternative service, we’re going to have to get a source of funding for this. Because it’s not fair to the Vineyard to have to fund all this for a regional problem, and it’s not fair to the Woods Hole residents to have to bear the burden of only one route.”

“We do have a big problem with the RFP not being successful at all,” Brown said. “I don’t have high hopes.”

Brown added he would like to see state legislators secure ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to perhaps rebuild or relocate the transfer bridge on the New Bedford State Pier. 

“I think the New Bedford freight service should be subsidized so it can be less expensive, because that’s the only way it’s going to catch on, because it takes longer to get there so, if it’s not less expensive, are people going to start trying it?” Brown said. 

Sayers said he didn’t disagree with the subsidy idea. However, he said, the SSA needs to have a discussion with the New Bedord Port Authority before advancing transfer bridge ideas. “It would be presumptuous for us to say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to come in and take over the site from you,’” Sayers said. 

“Absolutely,” Brown said.

Sayers said questions remain as to whether New Bedford wants a roll on/roll off in that area. He also said there has been opposition to having trash hauled off the State Pier.

Dukes County commissioner Leon Brathwaite suggested infrastructure funds would be more appropriate than ARPA funds for such a project. 

The task force took no action on the subject, and closed the agenda item with the understanding that Davis and Sayers are back at the drawing board with the RFP. 

Reached Friday, Sayers stressed another draft of the RFP wasn’t going to come instantaneously. Among other things, a number of conversations need to be held with stakeholders and others first, he said.