Oak Bluffs, Tisbury look to triple embarkation fees

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Island’s port towns seek increase on ferry ticket surcharge.

Oak Bluffs and Tisbury are looking to increase ferry embarkation fees for the first time since 2004. — Rich Saltzberg

In a joint meeting with the select board on Dec. 21, the Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee recommended an increase to the town’s ferry embarkation fee.

Finance committee member Sherry Countryman said the overall goal of an increase is “to make improvements and enhance the revenues in the town.”

Countryman said she’s been in communication with state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, in addition to the chair of the Tisbury finance committee, Nancy Gilfoy, about the potential increase. She said it was suggested that the two port towns collaborate in a unified presentation on why the Island should increase their fees, and to what number. 

The state legislation allowing port towns in Barnstable, Nantucket, Bristol and Dukes County to impose a surcharge on ferry tickets was put into effect in July 2004, at a fixed fee of 50 cents per passenger for ferry services over 100 passengers. 

The fees collected contribute to the towns’ revenues, often as part of their public safety budget. 

“Cyr was very enthusiastic about increasing the embarkation fee,” Countryman said, but now it comes down to agreeing on a new fee structure with the town of Tisbury. 

She said the Oak Bluffs finance committee “was hoping for something around the $2 mark,” but Tisbury showed “hesitation,” and initially suggested upping the fee to $1, telling Countryman $2 would be “overstepping.” 

Tisbury relayed that “they’re worried about having too many people notice that the fee is going to go up,” Countryman said, along with concerns that the Steamship Authority would not be in support of a significant increase, or that it would eventually affect excursion rates. As of now, excursion tickets are exempt from embarkation fees. 

Ultimately, Tisbury select board member John Cahill, who also serves on the port council, “was willing to go up to $1.50,” for the sake of unity among the two Island port towns, Countryman said. 

Tisbury’s finance committee and select board voted in favor of increasing the embarkation fee to $1.50 on Wednesday evening, Dec. 21, at a meeting that coincided with the Oak Bluffs meeting. Tisbury select board member John Cahill later told The Times the endorsement of an increase was done in conjunction with Oak Bluffs, and now the towns’ two administrators will draft a memo to state legislators to further the process. Cahill said the increase, if finalized, would be the first of its type in 18 years.

The increase in embarkation fees would be on top of rate increases approved for 2023 by the SSA board. If approved, a roundtrip ticket to the Island would cost $22.

Embarkation fees are also charged for other ferries by the SSA, such as HyLine, SeaStreak, and the Edgartown-Falmouth ferries.

At the Oak Bluffs meeting, select board chair Ryan Ruley inquired as to how much the town receives annually from the 50 cent fee. 

Countryman said if the two towns agree on tripling the surcharge to $1.50, Oak Bluffs would derive roughly $600,000 annually from the fees. Currently, the town gets $200,000 per year. Tisbury garners around $250,000 currently. If the $1.50 surcharge is approved, Tisbury would take in $750,000. 

“I think this is a great thing for the town,” Oak Bluffs finance committee member Richard Weiss said; “it’s well past time [the fee’s] gone up.” 

Countryman agreed, and said although the Oak Bluffs finance committee initially recommended that a $2 fee be imposed, it would be important to align themselves with the town of Tisbury. The finance committee “view[s] unanimity as being more important than anything.” 

The select board ultimately voted in favor of having the Oak Bluffs town administrator and finance committee meet with Tisbury officials to reach consensus on an increased embarkation fee between $1.50 and $2. The select board additionally voted to authorize the town administrator to send a memo outlining that increase request to state representatives, in the event that the two towns can agree on a fee.

Ruley said “there should be uniformity” with Tisbury. “I would hate to go with a different amount for each town,” he said.

Countryman said that Cyr’s office recommended reaching an agreement with Tisbury by Jan. 3, in order to be considered as part of the existing legislation for Barnstable. 

“What they’re looking for right now is a strong show of support from all the port towns,” she said of the state reps, adding that the towns are encouraged to make “a robust request.” 

“It’s not the time to be conservative,” Countryman was told by Cyr’s office.

Reporter Rich Saltzberg contributed to this story.


  1. Will someone in government ever think of what this does to islanders? We take the boat too. Will a selectperson suggest something to ease the cost of living here and not just keep adding taxes and increasing fees. How about an islander ID that waves these embarkation fees. I’m sick of our elected officials always going for the “money grab”. Time to rise up and fight these fees. First the SSA increases parking and reservation fees, now the towns do the same thing? Please someone give us a break.

    • How do you define an Islander?
      Do they have to be born here?
      Can they winter in Florida, for eight months of the year?
      Pay taxes?
      What is your justification for subsidizing the transportation of Islanders?
      Pay your fare share.

      • Albert, how do they do the excursion rate? By providing your island residence and being listed on town street address. It’s possible, it just needs to be considered. I pay my fare share every day by living and working here by paying the higher prices for gas and goods and services.

      • How about they just use the system they have been using for decades? Vehicle has to be registered here to get the excursion rate, simple.

      • Albert, how do they determine who qualifies for the excursion rate? Someone, or a group, just needs to figure out a process, it’s not hard. I pay my fare share by living here and buying gas, goods and services year round at the elevated prices caused by the SSA freight charges.

    • If I go off-island, I always will be taking my car under the excursion rate which is exempt from the embarkation fee or, if without a car, using a 5-ride Lifeline pass which is also exempt from the embarkation fee. So, actually, islanders don’t have to pay the embarkation fee.

  2. Can we stop calling it a fee and refer to it as a tax which is really what it is. It’s a money grab from the port towns to bolster the town coffers. Simple as that.

    • The port towns have significant costs providing public safety and services to the ferryboats terminals.
      The SSA pays no real estate taxes, private ferry companies do.

    • John–Ok it’s a tax to be able to pay for the services the town provides. Simple as that.
      It seems we are in agreement here.

  3. Tripling the fees would mean balancing costs to the towns responsibilities of providing services. However, that being said, all costs are going up and we are dealing with a polycrisis of inflation, environment, and importantly, a constantly expanding SSA. On Christmas Eve there was an announcement at 8:30 PM that all boats were cancelled. We would not have known if not for our son arriving at the terminal and being impacted. The explanation was “safety”. Winds were 20 mph so it probably was a staffing issue, but we do not know. That is one event, but the SSA is building a massive new terminal and expanding the fleet as well as terminals. Certainly this is a departure from providing the necessities for islanders which is the reason for their non-profit status and lack of Real Estate taxes – which – if there were Real Estate taxes, the port towns would not need an embarkation fee. But that will never happen. The state has accepted unlimited growth. At the same time, a group of European nations are trying to re-define values and give reference to the multiple crises and point to the study done in 1972. The Limits to Growth (LTG) is a 1972 report that discussed the possibility of exponential economic and population growth with finite supply of resources, studied by computer simulation. The study used the World3 computer model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the earth and human systems. It is a book worth reading and this simple tripling of an embarkation fee is actually a warning that we are out of balance. Commissioned by the Club of Rome, the findings of the study were first presented at international gatherings in Moscow and Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1971.[2]: 186  The report’s authors are Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, representing a team of 17 researchers.[2]: 8 

      • HA HA HA HA !!!!!! The pot calls the kettle black, and does not even see the irony… Ha Ha Ha Ha !!!!!!!!
        You know, I couldn’t find a single reference to the Club of Rome talking about the 2022 “red wave” sweeping the U.S elections..
        The club of rome is still quite active , you know. While some of their goals have not been met due to the greedy and self serving motivations of ignorant short sighted fools who couldn’t care less about future generations, they have never been “debunked”.
        Apparently you don’t really know the meaning of the word “debunked” if you support a narcissistic pathological liar who still claims he won the 2020 presidential election.
        Come on andy– you don’t really want to bring up prognostications that didn’t come true, do you ?
        You can present a rational and,if you try, honest argument.You can do better….
        You seem to be deliberately baiting me to be condescending — ok– I’m taking the bait.
        The prospect of metaphorically shooting fish in a barrel seems boring to me.

  4. It’s pretty typical that a politician would enthusiastically endorse a new tax. It seems to be what they’re best at. While you’re reporting on this where is the context as far as what Nantucket charges, and what Barnstable charges for the embarkation fee. I do not know, but it would help in public opinion. One of the reasons governments have an insatiable appetite for revenue is the antiquated pension system that continues to be prevalent only in governments. All future hires should go the way of the rest of the real world and 401(k)s and self funding retirement. The entitlement, attitude in government has got to come to an end. It is funny that Oak Bluffs cries when they don’t get enough boats coming to their town and then the next breath they want more revenue from the boat because they’re coming into the town.

  5. “Tisbury is worried that having too many people find out the fee is going up “ is a bit of a red flag for me. Plus what reps are advocating a robust increase in the fee? Who in Cyr’s office said this is not the time to be conservative? It’s all a bit vague.

  6. Since it takes legislative action to change, instead a set fee (that hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years), maybe they should do a one-time change to set the embarkation fee as a % of the passenger fare instead of a set fee? For example, at the current $9 adult fare a 20% “embarkation fee” would add $1.80. On the $5.00 senior rate, 20% would add $1.00. And would increase proportionally over time as the cost of living increases.

  7. Supposedly these “fees” cover the expense of visitors coming to the island. How much in sales tax and room/rental tax do they pay? Why are we additionally taxing the golden goose?

  8. Having spent most of my summers during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s and during the 1960s at Oak Bluffs; I have had difficult time reconciling the increased growth and congestion on the island. Today i spend some time on the island but in expensive hotels or inns. I stand in line with everyone else for that bowl of clam chowder and tour the island on a bicycle. The Island remains, in spite of the influx of many people, a wonderful place to visit. An embarkation fee of $5 is justified to assist islanders with maintaining law and order, visitor safety and the facilities for managing the growth that has been approved by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an antidote to an increase in the fee, measure the
    impact of a resident ID on a fee net of the $5 base, suggested. The fee, after the resident ID exclusion should always be above $3. Decide what port towns can accomplish with the fee share that attributes to each port town. Collaborate on expenditures that will most closely meet the overall goals of keeping the island a place where people live year-round and visit. Arguing over the level of the fee is tantamount to arguing over how to polish a particularly beautiful gem stone. The beauty of the stone is the subject. The type polish is the question. A lower fee is a more populist solution where as a higher fee will seem somewhat elite and exclusive. My thought, however, is that the island attracts those who would prefer the elegant ecological and native history of the island, it’s bow to immigration and those who settled the island, over the giltz of Ibiza. Measure the impact of the new fee over a two year period. Take the time to measure meaningful metrics or those that describe what you fear or hope for the islands future as a destination. The bickering is “whiney”. New Englanders and Islanders are pragmatic.

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