SSA head criticized by Oak Bluffs officials

The select board especially wanted answers regarding improvements to the reservation system.

(Left to right): Oak Bluffs select board members Emma Green-Beach, Gail Barmakian, Thomas Hallahan, Mark Leonard, and Dion Alley, who participated by Zoom, called for improvements in the SSA's management. —Eunki Seonwoo

The Oak Bluffs select board criticized how the Steamship Authority (SSA) is being managed on Tuesday, June 11, jabbing at the seeming deterioration of services provided by the ferry line.

In particular, officials called for improvements to the ferry reservation system. 

Robert Davis, the SSA general manager, appeared over Zoom during the select board meeting. 

The meeting with Davis was triggered by SSA staff recommending 41 North Offshore, a New Bedford company, be licensed to provide on-demand freight services to Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs during a Port Council meeting in May. Davis had neglected to notify Oak Bluffs officials about the proposal. 

“A lot of it, we’re hearing it from the newspapers,” Mark Leonard, Oak Bluffs select board member, said at the meeting.

The board members called for better communication from the SSA with the town, which Davis said will be done. However, this was only one of several issues discussed during the meeting. 

The biggest problem raised by multiple officials was what seems to have been a deterioration of the SSA’s reservation system and Islanders’ access to the vehicle spots on the ferries. 

The SSA had been told by Thomas Innis from Gibbous, a firm tapped to review the authority’s information infrastructure (IT) in December, that the ferry line had been underinvesting in its IT systems

Innis had said overhauling the SSA’s IT infrastructure could take two years to complete. This includes the reservation system, which was originally built in 1997. 

Davis said the reservation system was a separate project from the overdue new website, which is still in development. He said a request for proposals for an improved reservation system is expected to be issued by the end of the year. 

Gail Barmakian, the Oak Bluffs select board chair, said the “bottom line” was that Islanders’ inability to get a ride on the ferries has never been so bad. 

“People are at their wits’ ends,” Barmakian said. She said many people have told her about how ferries would show up as full online, but there was space remaining for cars when the vessel actually left the docks. 

Emma Green-Beach, an Oak Bluffs select board member, said she’s heard from many of her friends that they’ve had difficulty getting ambulances off the Island for repairs because the reservation system showed full boats.

Leonard said it was “so surprising” that the reservation system hadn’t been a higher priority for the SSA. He also said a real-time system that can show when space for a vehicle becomes open should be implemented. 

Davis said having the reservation system show vehicle space availability in real time was something that will be looked at for the upgrades. 

Other concerns board members expressed included the multiple ferry breakdowns over the past year, and the crew shortages. The lack of staff has also reduced the number of SSA freight ferry trips that will be run on the Vineyard route. 

“Is the Island growing too fast for the Steamship to keep up?” Dion Alley, Oak Bluffs select board member, asked Davis. “Our needs are continuing to grow.” 


In particular, Alley underscored the growing year-round population means more people relying on freight cargo delivering essential items like food, and the many seniors who need access to the boats for medical services they can’t get on the Island. 

Davis said the SSA tends to carry up to 85 percent of the vehicle capacity on the Vineyard route. Davis said the ferry line wants to avoid always hitting full capacity to account for factors like seasonal traffic trying to get to or from the Vineyard, and vessels needing repair, which can affect ferry availability. He said this has been evaluated annually for the past 20 years with a “cost of service study.” 

As for truck reservations, he said a categorization called the “three-space truck” consists of vehicles 35 feet to under 55 feet. A 40-foot truck, Davis said, may take up the space of two passenger vehicles. 

Compared with 20 years ago, Davis also said the rise in online retail has increased the demand for the SSA’s services, and the ferry line has had to make technological upgrades to its vessels. 

However, Davis said better allocation of vehicles on a vessel, like the freight ferry Governor, is something the SSA is reviewing. 

Barmakian said some of the issues the SSA was dealing with seemed “foreseeable,” like the crew shortage and the need for improvements for the ferry reservation system. 

Joe Sollitto, the Oak Bluffs representative to the Port Council, shared with the board some of his fellow councilors’ dissatisfaction with how the SSA was managed, like the “crazy” process of making a new website before building a new reservation system, or the crew shortage issues that should have been prepared for months in advance. 

“They don’t anticipate problems, they react to problems,” Sollitto said. 

Sollitto also pointed to the evaluation Davis received from the Port Council and SSA board. Several councilors and board members gave Davis a score of 75 or lower out of 100, although some officials did give Davis high marks. 

“Generally, Joe, I don’t believe any of the explanations anymore, or the answers, because they’re not making sense to me,” Barmakian said regarding the SSA. 


  1. So first off the reservation system isn’t even in a bid process yet? Wasn’t that part of the new website (until now?) and everything he said sounds like an excuse or a so what. I think it’s about time that the manager of the steamship is from one of the islands it represents. Having the Roman island reps is a joke. They have no real say. Also if you listened to the captain raise his complaints and then heard Mr Davis not support him it’s time for him and his multi million dollar bonus’s to go. Why is a boat available when you call but not online? I’m tired of hearing how supplies can’t get here because someone that bought a house last year doesn’t like a truck drive by at 530 am or whatever. Sorry unless you’ve been there for 100 yrs that’s the ferry road. It’s been that way for years.

    • I would like to support the above comments and add that in most organizations that are failing to provide the services promised that the head of the organization is responsible and needs to be replaced. I also would like to point out that whenever the SSA is held accountable for the failures they always threaten higher cost to the islanders. Even in this article. Mr Davis mentions cost, is this a scare tactic, Mr Malkim who is supposed to represent the island also mentions cost, they are so good to the islanders with the discounts they give but the discounts do not matter if you cannot get a reservation. Like having to take a 6 AM boat to a doctor because no available boat at a reasonable time.
      It may be time for going back to the State running it as an extension of the highway.

  2. I’m very unhappy with the way they pack us in on the ferries. If you had an emergency you cannot get out of your vehicle. I wrote to Mr. Davis about this last year.
    If the freight boat is for freight why are the tractor trailers and other hauling vehicles on the larger boats? They take away that available space for car reservations.

    The SSA has to be upgraded. Why did the Board
    downgrade Mr. Davis overall on his performance
    but then turn around and give him a $70,000 dollar raise?

  3. In the private sphere, the incompetence would have gotten this man fired years ago–don’t we all get that? Someone needs to get him out of there, the Steamship Boat or Governors are now the ones responsible–Moira Tierney, Bob Rainey on Nantucket, etc. No one has backbone or they’re blind. That they refuse to replace someone who has not gotten the job done well in years–as Gail says–shows their incompetence as well. Let’s look at this clearly–anyone in the private sector would have been gone years ago–we all know that on an island of privilege and wealth among some. Why should something so important have been any different? He looks like a little boy with excuses every time, never an apology, and complete ineptitude. Islanders are stupid at this point, because there was a way to get him out and we never did it.

    • Mr. Shapiro, do you work for the SSA administration? Have you been on the Island for a long time? Personally, I am appalled that the bid requests for the website have yet to go out. But as I suggested before, perhaps the junior class at MVRHS could take it on as a project next year. As for the reservation website (and they are two separate things?) I think anyone who has built a transportation website could manage this. Surely it can’t be more problematic than, say, an airline reservation website. Lastly, the communication between Mashpee and Woods Hole needs to be improved. Has anyone heard of a telephone? Most of us realize that if we had the record that Mr. Davis has, we’d hardly be given a giant raise, more likely our walking papers.

      • Ms. Crafts, the SSA was created because private ferries did not fill the need.
        Those were the good old days….

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