The town of Oak Bluffs emerged a winner from Tuesday’s monthly Steamship Authority meeting, which set next year’s summer and fall operating schedules. Vineyard Haven was a loser, as was the boat line itself. Marc Hanover, the Vineyard’s governor, was just angry.
Credit hard economic times for all of the above.
The story began some months back, when the SSA was facing a huge budget hole caused by the high price of fuel. In an effort to find cost savings, management suggested closing the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal early and moving two inbound and two outbound sailings to Vineyard Haven.
The change would have applied throughout next year’s peak season, and saved the SSA an estimated $45,000. But Mr. Hanover, an Oak Bluffs businessman, refused to support it.
He said he could not see the logic in reducing services out of his town, particularly in view of the fact the SSA was in the throes of improving the terminal facilities there.
Why spend $10 or $12 million on new facilities and then use them less, while putting added strain on the crowded facilities of Vineyard Haven, Mr. Hanover said.
He was supported by port council member Bob Huss, also from Oak Bluffs, who had examined the passenger numbers on the services; they were well-patronized boats.
Between them, the two boats brought an average of more than 300 walk-on passengers into the town each day.
“I think it would be tough on passengers. It also would be tough on the economy of Oak Bluffs as well,” he said.
Management promptly dropped the idea, a decision made far easier by the fact that fuel prices fell dramatically.
But this did not sit well with Tisbury, which would have liked to have those extra ferries sent its way.
So on Tuesday, selectmen Tristan Israel and Denys Wortman traveled to the meeting in Woods Hole to plead their case.
“I hate to make this town versus town,” said Mr. Israel, noting that the past 10 to 15 years had seen services moved out of Tisbury.
The town needs the business, he said, all the more because of the big fire last July 4. The selectmen said they were worried about the economic well-being of the town as well as the cost to town revenues resulting from the loss of embarkation fees.
Tisbury is the Island’s year-round town and does not deserve to be penalized for its success, Mr. Israel said.
He went on at some length and handed over a couple of letters supporting his case, one of them from the town administrator.
Mr. Wortman was more succinct. He cannily argued the boat line should consider its own financial interests, that it could still save $45,000.
In contrast, the Oak Bluffs selectman Ron DiOrio, was brief in his submission. He simply expressed his confidence that the SSA would stick to its plan of maintaining the boat services to “Camelot.”
And that is just what the boat line governors did, after a little homily from SSA general manager Wayne Lamson about the need to maintain service levels, and a few choice words from Mr. Hanover, defending his integrity in the process.
He said he regretted any perception that he favored one town over another, that Tisbury had in fact received 50,000 more people this year, that it had suffered some “horrendous” traffic snarls because of the boat traffic, and that the plan came from management.
In particular, he said he resented any suggestion that he was looking after his own restaurant business.
“The last boat docks at 8:15 and my restaurant shuts at 8,” Mr. Hanover said.
In the end Tisbury won one small concession: SSA governors agreed that ferry passengers would be surveyed this coming season to determine whether they would prefer to be delivered to Oak Bluffs or Tisbury.
In other business, the governors held a hearing on licence renewals for several private operators who run services to the Islands. Proceedings showed times are tough.
Hy-Line Cruises’ proposed schedule for its Hyannis to the Vineyard operations next year is greatly reduced — down from five to three round-trips per day in spring, from five to four in early and late summer, from five to three in early fall and from four to two in late fall.
Cape and Islands Transport Inc., operators of the Pied Piper passenger ferry service from Falmouth to Edgartown, sought only minor time adjustments for their services — they previously have cut the number of weekly trips from 35 to 29 — but reported a steep decline in patronage.
Total passenger numbers fell from 27,000 in 2007 to 17,000 last year.
In an effort to make up some of their losses, the ferry owners are exploring joint marketing with hotels and other destinations on the Island.
On the upside, the SSA management told the governors they are putting together a plan to protect the boat line against sharp spikes in fuel costs in future. For a cost of about 15 cents per gallon of fuel, they could insure against the price rising above what is currently budgeted, ensuring no fare hikes in the coming year.