The Steamship Authority will allow Vineyarders five additional reservations when the head start program begins next month on Jan. 24 at 5 am. Summer reservations between May 18 and Oct. 23 can be made at that time, and the reservation office will have extended hours for customer support.
At a meeting with Times reporters on Friday, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll spoke about the reservation program as well as a handful of other ferry service issues.
One of the things Driscoll pointed out is that Vineyarders will have the ability to double the number of reservations they can make during the peak travel season to and and from the Island. Five of those reservations will be transferable.
He also reported that the SSA is increasing the number of preferred spaces that will be available for Islanders for those last-minute trips. “We’re creating a new class of preferred spaces for 30 days out, so people who need to plan more than a week but less than head start, we’ve sort of found out that there’s a need,” Driscoll said. “People have things that come up and they don’t want to wait until a week before that event to try to get a reservation. We’re not increasing the total number of preferred spaces, but we’re peeling a few off on certain trips off the Island in the morning and back in the evening to allow for that new category.”
The Times also asked about some frustrations that boiled over this summer as Islanders took to social media after being rejected for a reservation, only to post photographs of empty spots on the freight decks of SSA ferries.
Driscoll said the problem is twofold — folks who make reservations and then don’t show up (usually freight companies), and a learning curve for some folks in the SSA’s ferry reservations department.
“There’s a lot of freight companies who just build into their cost of doing business to have a reservation, and then they eat it. They don’t bother canceling it. If one truck doesn’t go over on a 6 o’clock boat, that’s four cars we can move ahead, and then that just cascades through the day,” Driscolll said. “Freight is like a whole other animal. You and I would never blow off a reservation, but for UPS — excuse me, for the common carrier that drives brown trucks — it’s the cost of doing business.”
When those cancellations come early in the day, vehicles are moved up to other ferries, and at the end of the day there are spaces,” he said.
As for the reservation system, it’s a little more complicated than someone who selects a seat on an airline, he said. “The system is great, but it needs active, hands-on management, and that’s where we fell short this year,” Driscoll said. “We had new people in roles replacing people who had been there 15 years. There’s a bit of a learning curve there. We’ve had a lot of conversations internally about it, and next year things will be better.”
The SSA board has been clear, Driscoll said. They expect the issue to be fixed. “We hear the frustrations, and we’re trying to address them,” he said. “The logistical dance behind it, I’m not sure if amazing is the right word … it is complicated. This reservation system is something we built because there’s nothing out there that did everything we needed to do, and it’s evolved over the years. We look at all that stuff constantly. We know what the issues were last year, and we’re going to address them.”
Another issue that came toward the end of the summer season was the need for a late-night boat so that service industry workers could commute to and from the Island. Though a survey was circulated in an attempt to call a public hearing, it fell outside of the window for SSA scheduling.
Driscoll said finances and crew scheduling are two issues that make it unlikely the SSA would provide a late-night ferry. However, he said it could be something they would license for either the Falmouth-Edgartown ferry or SeaStreak.
“That to us is something where our licensed carriers can excel, because those boats are cheaper to run than ours,” he said. The SSA does run trips that don’t make money, but there are other barriers to the authority running a late-night crossing, including mandatory rest for ferry crews.
Driscoll also noted that the SSA remains open to coordinating with Beach Road Weekend, doing things like delaying boats, as it did this year in Oak Bluffs. Again, he added that the SSA won’t be offering a midnight run to facilitate concertgoers: “We want to have those conversations, the earlier the better. We know it’s a big event, and we’ll work with [promoter Adam Epstein], just like we do with Pops on Nantucket and the fireworks, in the bounds of what we can do.”
As for electrifying the fleet, Driscoll mentioned the study reported out earlier this year by Elliot Bay Design. He said the SSA is responding to questions raised by the Martha’s Vineyard Commissions energy subcommittee, but noted the limitations of the current technology and infrastructure.
“With the infrastructure the way it is now, if we plugged a boat in in Woods Hole, the whole village would go black,” Driscoll said, “and the Island would just sink if we did it over here.”
The difference between the SSA and Washington State Ferries is that the SSA is self-funded through ratepayers. “Everything we get comes from you when you leave the Island,” he said. Washington State receives government subsidies, Driscoll noted.
“We can’t afford to fail. We can’t invest $60 million in a boat and then say it failed,” he said. “We did that in Hyannis. We invested in buses that ran on compressed natural gas, and then the one compressed natural gas station on the Cape shut down with no notice. A bus showed up to fuel, and it was gone.”
He noted that the SSA has added electric buses, and is working on the possibility of leasing solar panel space at its Palmer Avenue lot in Falmouth, similar to what it did at the Thomas B. Landers lot.
Driscoll reported that SSA continues to work on a new, more user-friendly website and a mobile app. He said he is also putting together a bid package for electronic signs at the terminals to alert customers to delays and cancellations for ferries. “We’re revisiting a lot of things that got put on the shelf in 2019 due to COVID,” he said.
Another way the SSA intends to improve communication with customers is to add push notifications through the app, along with text messages and emails that already go out when there are cancellations. Internal communications to SSA staff will also be added, so that everyone gets the same message, Driscoll said.
As for freight service coming to the Island from New Bedford, Driscoll pointed out that there was no response to an RFP for that service — an indication that companies don’t think it could be profitable. Meanwhile, he noted there are infrastructure issues in New Bedford that don’t allow for that to be a quick fix.
In answer to a question about whether the SSA is beholden to bondholders, Driscoll responded, “We have to at least break even every year, and hopefully have enough money set aside for future capital projects, because we fund all of that stuff too,” he said. “So in service to bond holders … sounds a little bit more Mafia than it is. They’re not shaking us down. We have to make our bond payments just like we have to make payroll, and make all of our operating costs. There are certainly trips that don’t make money, but on the whole we make money.”
As for what role the SSA should play in limiting the number of people who come to the Island, Driscoll said, “Our position is, Who are we to do that? … Where is that line, and is it for us to say? You have six towns on this Island, and all six of them, if you asked them, they would have … a whole bunch of different responses to that.”
Driscoll said the SSA remains neutral on the topic. “We are passive in that we are meeting the demand. We’re not trying to increase or decrease artificially the demand.”
But what about the advertising the SSA does, which was criticized during the discussion of raising rates in 2023? Driscoll said the advertising seeks to attract walk-on customers, with most of it geared toward the fast ferry to Nantucket, which has direct competition from HyLine. “It’s a very modest budget,” he said. “I have to squeeze every nickel I can get out of it.”
Updated to clarify the head start opening date. Head start for Vineyarders opens Jan. 10. The general opening date for reservations is on Jan. 24.