Boat Line Forecast: Steady as She Goes, Waiting on Weather


When Steamship Authority managers look ahead to the summer season, they are hesitant to make any forecasts. Traffic may be a little off right now, but everyone agrees that in the end the weather will be the biggest influence on how many passengers ride the ferries.

"I think things are a little slower than we would like, but that can reverse pretty quickly," SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin said this week.

"You talk to the guys who have been on the boats 20 and 30 years, and you ask them when it's going to get better - and they say when it gets sunny," Mr. Raskin said.

"There's as much wisdom in that as anything I can offer," he added.

"It looks busy starting at the end of June through the end of the summer. There's a pretty good wait list going on for the changeover weekends, but we are looking for midweek traffic to pick up," said Gina Barboza, head of reservations. "A lot of that is reactionary to weather - the daytrippers on the Cape who decide to go over for the day."

Looking back at the year so far, boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson, who tracks traffic statistics and revenue, said the SSA is pretty much on target.

From January through May 21, SSA ferries carried a total of 545,877 passengers on the Vineyard run, a slight drop of 1.7 per cent over the same five-month period last year.

A total of 115,281 cars were carried during the same time frame, an 8.1 per cent decline from last year. But truck traffic climbed sharply, with 32,483 trucks carried from the start of the new year through May, as compared with 25,854 last year. That's an increase of 25.6 per cent.

The shifts in automobile and truck traffic are somewhat deceiving, said Mr. Lamson.

"Part of this has to do with a reclassification of vehicles. Ticket sellers and reservation clerks are paying more attention to whether they're dealing with trucks, pickups, vans, SUVs," said Mr. Lamson.

A new rule imposing an extra fee on cars and trucks that are over 16 feet in length went into effect at the boat line on Jan. 1.

"Now that everyone is looking up the models and lengths, some commercial vehicles that had been sliding through as cars are now being considered trucks," he said.

Breaking down the car traffic statistics even further, there has been a distinct drop-off in the number of excursion fares, which are down by 9,059 cars from this time last year - a difference of nearly 12 per cent.

Mr. Lamson again attributed the decline to a change in SSA reservation rules and increased attention to car length. For example, a year-round resident can make a preferred space reservation (classified for statistical purposes as an excursion fare) only if the vehicle comes in under 18 feet. In addition, nonprofits are no longer eligible for excursion rates.

Looking ahead, Mr. Lamson said traffic this summer is likely to be the same as last year. The boat line currently has almost $11 million in unearned revenue. (Even when tickets are purchased ahead of time, they are considered unearned revenue until they are used.)

At the same time in 2003 the figure was about $10 million. Mr. Lamson attributed the increase primarily to the rate changes that took effect in January.

"We'll go through the first four months of the year and lose money, and then make that up primarily in July and August," said Mr. Lamson. "We start to turn the corner in May in terms of having a net operating income, but we won't get out of the red until August."

The boat line operates on a calendar year.

Total operating income through March was nearly $7.1 million, while total expenses were about $14.4 million, leaving the boat line with a loss of $7.3 million for the first three months of the year. But that operating loss through March was $988,000 better than the loss projected in the budget.

"There isn't any wizardry here. We've done a decent job at holding back costs, we have had some fare increases and we are also enforcing rules, like with the excursion fares, that are helping our average yield," Mr. Raskin said.