Tisbury, Oak Bluffs at Polls Tuesday

Gazette Senior Writer

Voters in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to adopt a ferry passenger surcharge that was approved by the state legislature earlier this year.

If voters in the two port towns say yes, beginning Jan. 1 a 50-cent fee will be tacked onto the price of every passenger ticket on Steamship Authority ferries and also every private boat line that carries 100 passengers or more in and out of the Vineyard. The fee will not apply to commuter books or lower-cost excursion fares.

In practical terms, the surcharge will raise the price of round-trip passenger tickets by $1, because the 50-cent fee applies in each direction.

Intended to generate revenue for the port towns, the fee will be collected by ferry operators and returned to the towns after calculations are made for how many passengers departed from that port. The fee could generate $300,000 to $400,000 a year for each town.

The local option ferry fee - state legislators have studiously avoided calling it a tax - has been the subject of scant discussion on the Island. Vineyard Steamship Authority governor Kathryn A. Roessel has been a critic of the fee, at one point calling it a regressive tax, although Ms. Roessel said this week that she recognizes that voters will want to support the fee.

"People in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury would actually be voting against their own self-interest if they vote against the fee. People have to make the decision that if the money is there, they should go and get it," Ms. Roessel said.

"But my position is unchanged - I think this fee is a terrible idea and there are so many problems with the language in the legislation that nobody knows how it's really going to work," she added.

The fee will apply to port towns in Barnstable, Nantucket, Dukes and Bristol counties. Because the fee is created through local option legislation, each town must decide for itself whether to adopt the fee. A yes vote on Tuesday in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury is a vote to adopt the fee.

Barnstable is the only town to date that has approved the fee. Nantucket voters will also decide the ferry fee question on Tuesday, and voters in Falmouth are set to decide the question on Nov. 25.

The ferry fee is the sole question on the ballot Tuesday in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury. In Oak Bluffs the election will take place in the Megan Alley Community Room at the Oak Bluffs School; polls are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. In Tisbury the election will take place at the American Legion Hall; polling hours are from noon to 8 p.m.

Town clerks in both towns said this week that they expect an extremely low turnout, in part because the issue has been so far under the radar screen. Clerks in both towns said absentee ballots - a reliable barometer for predicting turnout in a local election - have been sparse.

"I'm not expecting a huge turnout; we just hope people will remember to come out and vote," said Tisbury town clerk Marion Mudge. Ms. Mudge said the banner that is traditionally hung over Main street reminding townspeople to "Vote on Tuesday" was expected to go up a day late because of the weather forecast for gale winds.

The ferry fee has the support of town officials in both towns, including the selectmen in Tisbury, although the discussion has been somewhat muted. In Oak Bluffs the town finance committee voted to support the fee.

"Revenue from this surcharge will be a new source of income for Oak Bluffs," wrote finance committee member Mimi Davisson in a letter to the editor that is published in today's Gazette.

The fee is intended to apply principally to tourists, but in truth the application of the fee is now a complete muddle, because so much of the language in the legislation is unclear.

For example, sports teams are meant to be exempt from the fee, but the actual language in the legislation states that "school-related rates" are exempt from the fee. This means recreational sports teams - who now travel on the ferry at a discount - would not be exempt from the fee because they are not affiliated with a school. The exemption for excursion fares also uses the term "Islands Preferred Excursion Program." The preferred fare program is reserved for year-round Island residents, but there is also a more broadly defined excursion program that is available to part-time and seasonal residents. As the legislation is now written, general excursion fares would not be exempt from the fee.

In another example of poor language, the legislation states that the fee does not apply to "those ferry boats that are capable of transporting less than 100 passengers."

Of course, every ferry in the region is capable of carrying fewer than 100 passengers - but the majority have the capacity to carry more.

Discussion is now under way between managers at the Steamship Authority and officials at the state Department of Revenue about how to interpret the legislation.

The proposed fee is expected to create a new use for commuter books, because this is the only way Island residents will be able to avoid paying the surcharge if they are traveling as foot passengers. Commuter books are not now universally used by Island residents, except for those who travel on the ferry frequently for work or other reasons.

Ferry companies affected by the fee will be responsible for administering the fee - a job that could prove to be a headache since it involves sorting out debarkation numbers for each port town that participates in the fee program. More administration means more cost for the organization doing the work, and this cost could in the end be passed along to consumers in the form of higher ticket prices.

The biggest selling point for the fee is the money: If it is adopted, the fee is expected to translate to several hundred thousand dollars in found revenue for the busy ports in Falmouth, Hyannis, Nantucket and the Vineyard. New Bedford officials say the city will not participate in the program - for now - because it could be a detriment to efforts to boost passenger traffic in the Whaling City.

Proceeds from the fee will go into a special fund that will be earmarked for mitigating impacts from ferry service. The language is broadly drawn to include harbor services, public safety and a range of infrastructure improvements.

The legislation was conceived by Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary; it also has the support of Cape and Island Rep. Eric T. Turkington.