Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend and the ferry Martha’s Vineyard was temporarily out of service. Crews were working to repair the problem. Meanwhile, with some trips cancelled, standby lines for cars began to grow in both Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven. The Steamship Authority handled the overflow with practiced efficiency. Lift decks on the ferry Island Home were used to take extra cars. The freight ferry Katama shuttled back and forth alongside the Island Home like a sturdy lieutenant, her open decks also packed with cars. By late in the day the Martha’s Vineyard was back in service and the backups had been cleared. Some people had long waits that day before heading to their destinations, but no one was left stranded.
And we were reminded that for all the griping Islanders like to do about the boat line that is their lifeline — why are there so many deck hands, the WiFi on the boats is terrible, the coffee curls your hair — the Vineyard and Nantucket are lucky to have a well-managed, self-supporting ferry service. The advance reservation system works well and is geared toward the needs of year-round Islanders. The new website launched recently is a clear improvement over the old. The ferries are shipshape and when they break down, crews are on hand to make immediate repairs. The political infighting that once marked the boat line board of governors has mostly faded from memory.
But old wounds were opened recently for the residents of Woods Hole when the SSA unveiled early concept plans for rebuilding the terminal there. Woods Hole residents have long been concerned about heavy traffic on the single road that leads into the village and also the ferry terminal, especially truck traffic. Following a contentious initial meeting over the terminal, governor Robert S. Marshall resigned as Falmouth’s representative on the boat line’s board saying he’d had enough.
And as the SSA begins a series of community meetings to gather feedback on the plans, the idea of opening up a freight route between New Bedford and the Vineyard has surfaced again.
The SSA has explored a New Bedford freight route before, most recently in the late 1990s when a feasibility study was done that included a two-year pilot freight service. The trial found that operating regular freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard, four times the distance of the current route, was inefficient, cost prohibitive and possibly unreliable during bad weather. In the long term it could lead to higher costs for the boat line which is the only public transportation company in the country that operates without state or federal subsidy. Higher costs could lead to higher freight rates which would be passed on to Island consumers who already pay significantly more for groceries and other goods. Higher costs could also potentially lead to deficits, and under the charter that created the SSA, deficits are paid by the taxpayers of the port communities. The largest share is paid by the Vineyard, which is the largest user of the ferry. Today it is hard to imagine the SSA running a deficit. But it has happened; the last time was in the 1970s.
In an interview with the Gazette last week, boat line general manager Wayne Lamson encouraged Islanders to get involved, noting that SSA meetings are sparsely attended of late. “Now we’re prepared to make a significant investment into the Woods Hole terminal these other issues are coming up,” he said.
He is right, and Vineyarders would do well to pay attention to this unfolding discussion.
On the subject of the new ferry terminal, certainly common ground can be found between the Vineyard and its sister community of Woods Hole. There is a shared interest in controlling traffic volumes and in keeping the design of the new terminal simple and in visual harmony with its waterfront environment.
On the subject of New Bedford freight service, there’s no harm in considering all options, but all the facts must be laid on the table and the interests of the Vineyard placed ahead of others, understanding that SSA is chartered to provide dependable, year-round service to the residents of the two Islands. The ferry service is our road home, our only road home, as the late Edmond Coogan, a former Oak Bluffs selectman, said so eloquently some years back.
And it is the Vineyard that will ultimately pay the price for any change in the way freight is shipped to the Island.