It’s ironic that Seastreak officially launched its new commuter service to the Island last week on the same day that Steamship Authority ferries were riddled with issues. Steamship passengers had up to hourlong waits; there were canceled ferries and missed reservations, and passengers were crammed into freight boat cabins, with bigger ferries sidelined.
The issues for the Steamship — while hardly everyday — aren’t new, but the alternative commuter service is. It’s an experiment that could only prove a good thing: Seastreak could become a viable competitor, potentially forcing better service from the Steamship, all while easing some congestion in Falmouth.
Seastreak is a passenger-only fast ferry providing service between New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard. It takes a little less than an hour. Historically, it’s provided service in the summer for visitors to the Island, less so for commuters. Until this winter.
With housing becoming more and more expensive on the Island, and after hearing from the business community, Seastreak officials are seeing a bigger need to shuttle workers. They say that they considered the service a few years back, but were interrupted by the pandemic.
The plan is to have a daily round-trip ferry between New Bedford and Vineyard Haven in the early morning and afternoon. The Steamship Authority Board agreed to the extended schedule in September.
If it proves successful this winter, Seastreak could request to provide the early-morning and afternoon commuter ferry year-round.
What the Seastreak can offer is time. With the Cape becoming more and more expensive to live on, more and more workers are moving to the South Coast. A recent report finds that the number of commuters traveling to the Cape has doubled over the past six years. In other words, the workforce for the Islands, if it hasn’t already, will likely be coming more and more from the Greater New Bedford area, and less from the Cape.
That’s the bet that Seastreak is making, at least. Instead of traveling over the bridge to a parking lot — only to get on a bus, to then get on a ferry — hopping on a fast ferry from New Bedford might save a lot of time and make more sense. And forget about it when the Bourne and Sagamore bridges are under construction.
There’s also reason to believe that Seastreak could become more viable in the future for visitors and Islanders traveling to and from Boston. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is adding commuter rail service from the state’s capital to New Bedford. The line has been in the works for decades, but WBUR reports that the South Coast Rail could start sending trains by the summer of 2024. The trip is expected to take about 90 minutes. On top of a 50-minute ferry ride to the Island on Seastreak, that’s much better than sitting in hours of bridge traffic.
There’s also potential to ease some of the pressure on Woods Hole, where residents have complained for years about the impact of cars and trucks on their small roads. With more passengers traveling from New Bedford, that’s fewer cars in Falmouth’s port. That’s fewer cars that will be traveling over the canal bridges, and less carbon emissions. Seastreak won’t solve the Woods Hole freight issue, as it’s only passenger service, but if it becomes a successful passenger provider, it could resurface the question: Why don’t we provide freight service out of New Bedford? It might make some of the more radical question why Steamship Authority ferries leave from Woods Hole at all, and not just New Bedford.
On cost, the Steamship may have the advantage for now. A commuter pass on the Seastreak is about $700 per month, verses about $175 for the Steamship. But Seastreak officials say that they offer free parking. At another $50 to $100 a week for Steamship parking, it’s not quite equal, but it’s close.
But on a less practical and maybe more important point, what the Seastreak can offer that could make it even more competitive — where the Steamship may be lacking — is consistency and reliability.
Last week’s debacle on the Steamship led to time missed at work for some commuters; as has been the case in the past, missed doctor’s appointments for Islanders; and general headaches and frustrations that could be avoided. The issues have real-life consequences.
The Seastreak probably won’t minimize all of the difficulties, and they’ll likely have their own mechanical issues, but for the Steamship as a monopoly, the incentive to make improvements can be less dire. The list is long on monopolies that have taken advantage of the market: As many homeowners know, in communities that only have one internet provider, their service will always be crappy with minimal customer care; pharmaceutical companies that hold exclusive manufacturing rights gouge their customers. Things don’t go right with monopolies.
Hopefully the Seastreak will put a little fear into its competitors.
In an interview with The Times, Seastreak officials say that they have been adding new commuters every week, but — as expected — it’s been slow to pick up since offering the route in October. The word is only just getting around.
For the sake of Steamship service to Woods Hole, we hope that the Seastreak experiment pans out.