Reliable transport, clear communications, and economical passage remain the focus of my attention as one of the five Steamship Authority board members.
In terms of reliability, the SSA in 2022 ran 17,021 Vineyard one-way trips, and had 58 cancellations for mechanical reasons; the mechanical cancellation rate was less than 1 percent — in fact, it was 0.34 percent — significantly better than the 5 percent goal for Washington State Ferries, which people seem to confuse as an example for the Vineyard.
Because the Vineyard has so many trips — 20 trips each way scheduled per day in off-season, 26 per day in shoulder season, and 31 weekdays and 28 weekends in summer season — we tend to view the boat line as a bridge, and react strongly to any interruptions.
The purchase of three identical, low-profile vessels meets the desire I voiced in March 2020 to move to a fleet of identical boats to minimize training and spare part inventories, and provide hull designs suitable for conversion to alternative fuels when that conversion is practical. There is an option to purchase a fourth such vessel.
This past year, the SSA responded to the Island’s demand for more excursion spaces, due to a larger population and more visitors. The number of spaces held for Islanders booking 24 hours and seven days in advance of sailing day has been increased. Further, the SSA is looking at creating 30-day advance-of-sailing vehicle spaces. Starting this year, due to increased Island demand, the amount of advance Headstart bookings were doubled for Islanders.
Contrary to a recent assertion written to the Vineyard paper, the SSA model is not “to bring over as many cars as possible.” The service has run the same capacity on the Vineyard routes since 2018.
I would note that during the COVID pandemic of 2020 and 2021, the SSA managed its finances well and, astonishingly to me, never had to cancel a trip due to lack of healthy crew. The financial situation of the SSA remains solid, and provides the ability to focus resources on the activities in process.
The SSA is the only ferry service in the U.S. that is totally funded by its users — there is no state or federal funding of operations. Although the SSA works with multiple sources of grants, costs are borne by Island travelers. This makes the economics of decisions an important element of board decisions. In 2022, the SSA Board approved a memorandum of understanding with the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority to be able to access $28.1 million in federal funds, which will be used to convert the three new vessels.
Regarding Islander fares and economics, there are no limits on the number of Islander excursion vehicles on each trip. Regarding excursion fares, the excursion rate goes up in the season as a reflection of demand on space in general; SSA has had requests in the past to assess a flat rate all year, but as that would increase the off-season fares, it proved unpopular, as most Islanders travel less frequently during the season. (Excursion travel has always been less in the summer than the remainder of the year.)
SSA could revisit that if there was significant demand. As a note, regarding trips and volume, through Jan. 31, advance reservation vehicle spaces are up 10.9 percent, compared with last year.
The board decided recently to appoint a working group of a board member, a Port Council member, and a member of management to work with an outside consultant to review the SSA IT infrastructure. It is imperative to address the risk to the SSA and to its customers stemming from existing systems, hardware, and applications.
Additionally, in relation to technology, the SSA is working with a new vendor to update the Wi-Fi equipment on all vessels. About this time last year, the board awarded a contract for a new website and mobile app, which have been in development through 2022, with launch anticipated later this year. For non-English-speaking travelers, the new website will have the ability to be translated into multiple languages, including Portuguese and Spanish.
The SSA needs to develop a proactive communication plan — both to inform Islanders with consistent and clear messages on their travel, and to provide timely information to Islanders regarding all issues and progress. This has been raised with management and the board.
Additionally, there are business decision and process issues that need to be addressed so that actions can be taken in a timely manner and communicated internally across the SSA organization and on to the traveling public. These issues have been raised to management and to the board.
The SSA recently commissioned and received a report on alternative propulsion for vessels. The three newly purchased vessels are more suitable for conversion to hybrid or electric power than the current fleet, but to make electric vessels a reality, it will take regional planning beyond SSA. The issue balances, in my opinion, on a fulcrum of economics and practicality. Having said that, the SSA continues to attend and meet with ferry operators, designers, and consultants on alternative fuels while working cooperatively with the MVC climate and energy groups.
Regarding green initiatives, the SSA is bringing electric buses online, and is installing solar canopies at the Thomas Landers Road Parking Lot and the new Woods Hole Terminal. SSA is seeking proposals to add solar canopies at the Palmer Ave. Parking Lot. The new Woods Hole terminal complex is designed to meet net zero efficiency ratings, with solar power and geothermal heating and cooling as part of the design. The new shoreside and marine facilities in Woods Hole are designed to accommodate a two-foot rise in sea level through a combination of raising the elevation of the landside site, dry-floodproofing the terminal and utility building, and designing the piers so they can be raised to accommodate future sea level rise as necessary.
The hiring of a chief operating officer has been a goal of mine since 2020, but had to be put on hold during the COVID pandemic. The process is underway. I have advocated for this position to free up the general manager from the multiple issues that demand his attention, and to allow the organization to operate more effectively and to execute more quickly.
James Malkin of Chilmark is the Vineyard member of the Steamship Authority Board. This report was given to the Dukes County Commission, which requested it be sent to The Martha’s Vineyard Times.