Sixteen Feet Is the Magic Length for Determining Extra Ferry Fee

Gazette Senior Writer

New Year's note to travelers who drive their cars on Steamship Authority ferries: Do you know how long your automobile is?

If not, and the car is longer than 16 feet - welcome to 2004, and please get out your wallet.

New rules went into effect at the boat line on Jan. 1, among them a rule that imposes an extra fee on cars and trucks that are over 16 feet in length.

The new fee applies to both the Nantucket and the Vineyard runs, and with space at a premium on boat line ferries, the idea behind it was to make fares more commensurate with the length of vehicles.

SSA governors approved the new rules at their monthly meeting in November as part of a thick packet that included a $64 million operating budget for the coming year.

But if the reasoning was sound enough, the execution was a little bumpy this week as the new rule went into effect and boat line employees were suddenly confronted with the task of sizing up vehicle lengths.

Lines snaked out of the entrance to the Vineyard Haven terminal as cars were stopped and measured. And if the car exceeded 16 feet, the driver was asked to go inside the terminal and pay an extra $10.

"I had bought my ticket ahead of time and nobody told me anything about the extra $10," said Joseph E. Sollitto Jr., a Chilmark resident who is the clerk of the Dukes County Superior Court.

Mr. Sollitto was one of scores of Islanders who got caught in the measuring stick dragnet this week.

Mr. Sollitto drives a Ford Explorer Sport Trac. When he arrived in Vineyard Haven on Wednesday this week for a short trip off-Island, he learned some new information about his car: It's over 17 feet long.

"I just pulled up and the guy looks at my car and he got out a slip and told me I owed an extra $10," Mr. Sollitto said. "There was a whole line of us - I think the line went beyond the Black Dog," he added.

"It's going to take a little time for the Island people to get used to this," admitted Bridget Tobin, who is the SSA terminal manager for Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs.

Ms. Tobin confirmed that boat line employees were using a carpenter's ruler to measure cars if there were any questions about the length.

And, with the wide variety of cars on the road today, it turns out there were plenty of questions.

"A Subaru is a Subaru and you don't have to measure it, but a Windstar van? You'll have to measure that," Ms. Tobin said.

In fact, SSA employees now have on hand a three-page alphabetical list of cars and their lengths.

And as it turns out the longer cars are not always the sport utility vehicles (SUVs), and the shorter cars are not always the sedans.

For example, at 16 feet, the Ford Taurus station wagon makes the minimum. But next year a new safety bumper planned for the Taurus is expected to put it over the threshold.

An opposite example: The Hummer, often held up as the symbol of the obscenely large SUV, is in fact short enough to make the low-priced cut at 15 feet in length. (The Hummer is also so wide that it can only fit down the center lane on the freight deck of most ferries.)

"I'm hearing from people about it," admitted Vineyard Steamship Authority governor Kathryn A. Roessel this week.

"We knew when we adopted this radical change that it was going to be an administrative nightmare, and we knew it would take some time to work the kinks out of this new system, and we're keeping in mind that it may have to be tweaked as it goes along," she said, adding:

"Having said that, the principle behind all of this I feel is sound and fair, and the principle is if you take up more space you ought to be paying more money."

The extra tariff for longer vehicles was at first proposed only for Nantucket when a package of fare increases came onto the table at the boat line late last year.

But Ms. Roessel said when she took the package to the Dukes County Commission, the members of the commission thought the extra tariff would be a better way to raise the rates on the Vineyard run. The new fee for longer vehicles was adopted for the Vineyard in place of a $1 add-on to passenger tickets.

In fact there will be a $1 add-on anyway, because of a new bill adopted by the state legislature that imposes a head tax on passengers traveling on ferries between both Islands and the mainland.

The tax is aimed at generating revenues for the port towns, not the boat line.

Administration of the passenger head tax is expected to be a nightmare all its own.

When he returned to the Vineyard this week, Mr. Sollitto had had some time to reflect on his experience at the hands of the tape measure - and also the fact that the excursion fare he used to enjoy at a round-trip rate of $39 has now increased to $49.

"Maybe it would have been fine if they had told me when I bought my ticket. But they didn't," he said, adding:

"I'm not blaming the employees - it's not their fault, they are just doing their job.

"And I realize that everything is going up and I accept that. But this is a 25 per cent increase.

"That's a lot."