The Steamship Authority vehicle reservation system is broken.

That was the take-home message this week at a forum that started as a focused debate about the boat line's new guaranteed standby policy and expanded to a broad indictment of the way the SSA books passengers.

The forum, hosted by the Dukes County Commission, was held Wednesday at the Vineyard Transit Authority administration building.

The turnout was small and weighted toward the business community of Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, with members of the Oak Bluffs economic planning and development committee included.

That Oak Bluffs committee has been aggressively campaigning for a revival of the old guaranteed standby policy for more than a year, pointing to a flagging Island economy in need of tourist dollars.

But what the boat line is starting this July is an altogether very different animal: a small guaranteed standby program limited to passengers with Islander-preferred status.

Only 15 cars will be allowed in line each day, Thursday through Sunday. There will be standby lines in Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven only.

"The question that the Oak Bluffs economic planning and development committee asked had to do with visitors coming to the Island, and the Steamship Authority's answer had nothing to do with that," county commissioner Paul Strauss declared Wednesday.

"If we are going to have standby again, it should serve the economy and businesses who desperately need it. Whether people like it or not, this is a tourist-based economy and we depend upon their coming here," said Renee Balter, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association.

"We were thrown a bone," said Jeff Kristal, president of the Tisbury Business Association.

Criticism of the reservation system in general was peppered throughout the 90-minute discussion. Everyone had a story about long telephone waits, mixed messages from SSA agents and being unable to secure a reservation - only to see spaces gaping at them from the freight deck of the ferry later on.

"There are a lot of issues that everybody talks about. Even an 800 number [for the boat line] would go a long way," said Mr. Kristal, a comment that drew nods of agreement from the room.

"The reservation system is shamelessly broken, whether it's about trying to make a same-day reservation or playing that game where you call 22 times and hope you get through," said county commissioner Robert Sawyer.

He added: "They don't know where the spaces are, and they do not have the 21st-century technology that would tell them."

Mrs. Balter, an innkeeper herself, painted a bleak picture of the state of Vineyard business. "We are a very fragile and endangered species, almost like the piping plover. The business community is 80 to 90 per cent owner-operated, not like the mainland with their chains and mega-stores."

She added that visitors' inability to get to the Vineyard is a significant obstacle to drawing business - a point with which other merchants agreed.

"We are not the only vacation destination for people to go to. They hear they can't get a reservation and they decide to go to Block Island. We have to give them some reliable way and time to get here," said Mr. Kristal.

"I wish more people had come tonight, so you could hear what I am hearing. People are worried. They feel helpless. Foot traffic is way down," said Maureen Fischer, who owns businesses in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.

"The SSA makes it such an unpleasant experience to travel that by the time people get to their destination they need a couple of martinis to recover," Ms. Fischer said.

She added: "People have other choices, and they don't want to go through the hassle the SSA puts them through. Why would anyone? It's terrible."

Mr. Strauss said hard numbers about the state of business on the Island would go a long way toward assessing the severity of the problem. Mrs. Balter suggested creating a task force with representatives from the SSA and the Island to study the issue.

By the end of the meeting most agreed that revamping the reservation system would resolve much of the frustration felt by tourists and Island residents. But some still pressed for guaranteed standby as a policy that would bring immediate results.

"Get the standby back in place with a 2:30 p.m. cutoff. See where it goes, and adjust it if we have to. The volume of traffic in 1995? Those days are long gone. I'm only booked 50 per cent for July Fourth, and I'm starting to get worried," said Peter Martell, chairman of the Oak Bluffs economic planning committee and owner of the Wesley House hotel.

Over the July Fourth weekends in 1995 and 1996 an unprecedented crush of vehicles descended on the Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven terminals, creating gridlock and forcing the SSA to run ferries through the night. In the aftermath SSA managers eliminated guaranteed standby on summer weekends.

"If they are still in a panic about the major weekends, it could be every day except for Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day," said Mrs. Balter.

"On weekends the late boats are half full. If we had standby that would fill up the empty space," said Robert Iadicicco, a member of the Oak Bluffs economic planning committee.

Mr. Sawyer pointed out the conflict inherent in asking for guaranteed standby while also honoring the Islandwide vote, taken seven years ago, to cap SSA vehicular traffic at 1995 levels.

"We have six towns, and universal thought is not our strong point. The only universal message the SSA has ever received from us was about holding down traffic," Mr. Sawyer said.

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel advocated a cautious approach and emphasized the need to balance business interests with quality of life issues.

"We all lived through what it was like, with people at 5 a.m. waiting in the Stop & Shop lot and jockeying for position, all the traffic at Five Corners. That can't happen again," said Mr. Israel.

"So if we bring it back, we must do it in a way that's orderly - take time and look at implementing this so as not to negatively impact our communities."

The county commissioners will take up the results of the forum at their next regular meeting, June 23, before deciding whether to approach the SSA board of governors at their meeting June 24 in Vineyard Haven.

"This is not just about getting visitors. There are a lot more people who live here full time and who travel off and on more than they did 10 or 20 years ago," Mr. Strauss said.

"I hope this is the first of many meetings, where we get the SSA truly involved with us in an ongoing study of our goals - what we want to achieve and how we will get there."