The Steamship Authority: The anti-lifeline


To the Editor:

The Steamship Authority calls itself “lifeline to the Islands,” but is it? On Christmas Eve, when the storm had mostly abated and the winds were down around 25 miles an hour or so, instead of carrying regularly scheduled passengers, the Steamship Authority shut down operations, and SSA personnel headed for the warmth of home. In doing so, the SSA left dozens of people cold and stranded on both sides of Vineyard Sound. In response, a private operator — Falmouth’s Patriot Party Boats — fired up the engines on the Quickwater and got people to where they needed to be (Dec. 28, “Tietje to the rescue!”). 

Why aren’t there lots of operators linking the Islands to the mainland, so that a failure by the SSA doesn’t make a problem for lots of people? And what about the Island Queen in Falmouth? Why couldn’t they run a trip? It’s because the SSA has prohibited them from doing so. The SSA Enabling Act, passed by the state legislature in 1971, gives one ferry company (the SSA) the power to decide who gets to move people (on any boat of over 40-passenger capacity), or freight (on any boat of over 70-ton capacity), or cars. With a capacity of 40, the Quickwater gets to bypass the SSA stop sign. With a capacity of 522, the Island Queen has to obey the SSA’s stop sign. The SSA effectively forbade the Island Queen from even thinking about picking up the stranded SSA passengers. 

For the same reason, the Island Queen has been forced to leave empty some of the trips it has taken between Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth. Yes, empty, no passengers, because the SSA wouldn’t let passengers on those trips. Surely there’s a way around this dysfunction? “Why yes,” said the SSA just a month ago: Pay us and we will allow you to take passengers on your empty trips. 

In the private sector, one business forcing another to hand over money is called a shakedown, the payment is called a “protection fee,” and the whole act of one business strangling another for money is prohibited as racketeering. In the public sector ,the payment is called a tax. What does the SSA call its tax on the Island Queen? A per-passenger “license fee.” And how much does the Island Queen have to pay the SSA for its “license?” Half of what the SSA charges for a passenger fare. That’s right, says the SSA; you carry the passenger, you pay us half of what we would charge to carry the passenger, we let you do business. We both end up ahead, see? 

Two decades ago, when the international shipping company Seabulk made plans to move passengers, cars, and freight on scheduled ferry service between Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford, the SSA didn’t like the idea, and prohibited them from doing so. Fast-forward two decades: SSA’s recent request for proposals for service through New Bedford included 70 pages of obstacles, prohibitions, and strings attached. SSA’s obstacles worked perfectly — of the dozens of companies that expressed interest in running regularly scheduled Vineyard–New Bedford ferry service, not one submitted a proposal to the SSA to do so. 

Contrast those decades of SSA intransigence with what United Parcel Service did last summer to get its packages to customers. When miscommunication left UPS without slots on the SSA’s Hyannis-Nantucket run, in a matter of weeks UPS lined up private New Bedford-to-Nantucket freight service. This left the SSA in an embarrassing predicament: 1) Say no to UPS and anger a lot of people, or 2) watch a private company do for Nantucket on a 50-mile route what SSA insists is not possible for Martha’s Vineyard on a 25-mile route. The private UPS freight service worked just fine. 

Having pushed out one competing businesses after another, the SSA aggrandizes itself as a “lifeline.” It’s not a lifeline, it’s a monopoly with legal power to force everyone else out. In the 1985 Soviet Union, “The abundance of bread [provided by the state] is one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet people. It’s a guarantee of our well-being.” That narrative came from the Soviet Ministry for Food Industries, which had eliminated all sources of bread except itself. In North Korea, it’s rice by the beneficence of “Our Great Leader,” whose fall, the narrative goes, would leave citizens destitute. For the Islands, the narrative is a “lifeline” through the benevolence of the Steamship Authority. SSA’s former general counsel and current consultant has recently upped the self-aggrandizement another notch, suggesting that SSA operations are “a matter of life or death.” 

But it’s Christmas Eve, and it’s cold and windy and dark out there. 

It’s time to break the monopoly. 


John Woodwell
Woods Hole