A longstanding dispute between the Steamship Authority and Ralph Packer’s barge operation over the annual transport of rental cars to the Island for the summer appears set to be fought out in court before this year’s tourist season.
For several years now, Mr. Packer’s Tisbury Towing and Transportation has moved cars for the Hertz rental company to and from the Island, much to the chagrin of the SSA, which has a legislated monopoly over the movement of people, vehicles and freight to and from the Islands.
Under the terms of the boat line’s enabling act, it must all be either moved by them, or moved by someone licensed by them.
About a year ago, boat line general manager Wayne Lamson told a meeting of its governors that repeated warnings to the barge operator had gone unheeded, and that any further shipments would bring legal action.
Then came the summer, and it happened again.
But in October, the SSA finally made good its threat, when Edgartown attorney and former SSA governor Ronald H. Rappaport filed a complaint in Dukes County Superior Court seeking to stop the unlicensed movement of the cars, as well as to recover damages for the past activity.
There was to have been a hearing then, but Mr. Packer preempted matters by agreeing not to move any more cars, while the parties looked for a solution — not a big concession, given that the rental car operation does not get busy until the summer.
Two days before Christmas the matter went back to court for a status conference — essentially a progress report. But there was little progress to report. Another status conference is scheduled for February, and then, if there is no resolution, for a hearing on a preliminary injunction, and maybe even a trial, in April.
Both parties say they want to avoid a trial.
Steamship Authority senior managers cite a long history of attempts at negotiation, which have all gone nowhere.
Speaking to governors last January, Mr. Lamson betrayed his frustration.
“I see the vehicles going over on a barge and then I write a letter and then I see the cars coming back,” he said.
“We have previously sat down to talk about this, and it is clear he is not going to change his ideas on what he can do ... and he doesn’t seem to think he has to get a licence.”
This week, Steven M. Sayers, general counsel for the boat line, noted that on Dec. 23, the boat line had provided a list of dates on which they were available for a meeting. “And all of those dates have gone by without a reply from his attorney,” he said.
Mr. Packer, on the other hand, when contacted yesterday, was quite relaxed.
“Hey,” he said, “we’re here just doing our thing. We’ve met with them several times. We’re just as frustrated as they are with the enabling act, and we’re trying to come to a reasonable agreement.”
At the heart of the dispute is a difference in interpretation of the provisions of the 1973 act which sought to prevent private operators from creaming off the lucrative summer trade and leaving the SSA to cover the unprofitable off-season, to the ultimate cost of year-round resident.
Mr. Packer argues that because his barge business was active before 1973, its operations are grandfathered, and require no further licensing by the SSA.
“The company, the petroleum end of it anyway, started in 1930. Tisbury Transportation and Towing, its marine arm, has, over the years, owned vessels, chartered vessels managed vessels, self-propelled tugs and barges, even a sailing ship. We’ve been at it a long time, moving products from the mainland to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket,” he said, adding:
“The enabling act refers to ‘seasonal daily service.’ That means maybe from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. But here we are today, chugging away in the hard weather; we operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.”
As an example of that year-round activity, Mr. Packer said that the first call he got on New Year’s Day was from the SSA, seeking help because an SSA contractor’s equipment had gone adrift and down onto the new dock in Oak Bluffs.
“We had a tug there within a couple of hours, and pulled them away,” he said, adding:
“We’ve been moving cars for maybe three or four years. We move a large number [of Hertz cars] over just for Memorial Day, and then just before the Fourth of July and then they want them off the Island so they can go elsewhere to be used.
“Hertz charters a barge and whatever they put on it, they put on it.”
Mr. Sayers, though said Mr. Packer had no legal leg to stand on, that there was no way Mr. Packer’s new car transporting business could be considered to be grandfathered.
“We have expressed our desire to settle this case, not to impinge in any way on that business, simply to prohibit him from carrying vehicles for hire without the permission of the Steamship Authority,” he said, adding:
“Some people might think we’re a bit heavy-handed on this, but in the long run, history has proven it’s better for the Island residents to have one entity who’s able to provide service on a year-round basis at the lowest prices.
“The only way to do that is to make certain that if we have the capacity, customers go through the SSA, rather than diverting revenues to someone else.”