Passenger and Car Fares Stay the Same But Commuters, Truckers, Schools All Can Expect Sharp Increases

HYANNIS - Vineyard residents will shoulder the bulk of next year's rate increases, which were unanimously approved by Steamship Authority governors at their monthly meeting in Hyannis on Wednesday.

Auto and passenger rates will remain the same in 2005, but boat line management made up for much of the estimated $1.3 million in increased operating expenses through parking hikes, a five per cent increase in year-round freight rates on the Vineyard run, and a 20 per cent increase in hazardous material surcharges on both routes.

Also Wednesday, news surfaced of a plan to install security cameras on boat line ferries, with money obtained from a federal grant. When asked for more information, acting general manager Wayne Lamson said that he "cannot say a word about the security plan," citing a restrictive federal law.

The exchange sparked sharp debate, led by Vineyard board member Kathryn A. Roessel, who called it a plan to install "spy cameras" on SSA ferries.

"I'm extremely troubled by the secret behind-the-scenes machinations that are going on at the Steamship Authority with respect to post-Sept. 11 security precautions, some of which I'm afraid might actually, unbeknownst to our customers, be infringing on their constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure, without people even necessarily knowing that," she said.

The lively debate over secrecy regarding security issues briefly eclipsed the board's unanimous approval of a $63.5 million operating budget and a $3.8 million capital budget for 2005.

SSA governors also declared the passenger ferry Schamonchi surplus property, and authorized management to open a bidding process for the beleaguered boat that once plied the New Bedford-Vineyard route. A survey estimated the value of the boat, which has sat idle in Fairhaven for the last year, at $625,000.

The board also adopted an operating schedule for the entire 2005 calendar year, allowing boat line management to book advance reservations earlier than in years past.

Mr. Lamson reported that overall ridership remains down, and that passenger numbers for August were the lowest in more than a decade.

Next year's fare increases are heavily weighted toward the Vineyard route - 75 per cent of the $1.3 million in projected extra revenues will come from Vineyard fares and parking fees. But the split follows the cost allocation formula adopted by the boat line board last year. The formula matches the cost of service with its expected revenue on each route.

"This has nothing to do with management playing favorites at all. Nantucket had a huge increase last year," Ms. Roessel said after the meeting.

"I think that the areas that Wayne targeted this year were reasonable, and I'm sensitive to the fact that he was looking for areas that hadn't gone up in many years," she added.

Mr. Lamson noted that he received more than two dozen messages opposing the rate hikes for parking permits in Woods Hole. He said he held an additional staff meeting the day before to reevaluate the recommendation. However, because the permit price had not gone up in six years, Mr. Lamson said he felt the increase was appropriate.

Mr. Lamson also suggested the boat line review eligibility requirements for the permits before they are issued in May, to ensure that people who are granted the permits use their cars frequently on the mainland.

The board also raised the annual travel rate for the Vineyard schools by 350 per cent. Under the old contract, which had not changed in 14 years, the regional school district paid $10,000 per year. A management review found that in 2002 and 2003, the schools used an average of over $70,000 of transportation.

Governors agreed to increase the annual rate to $35,000, and to review the cost of transportation on an annual basis. The rate change reflects a similar price charged to the Nantucket school district, which pays 50 per cent of applicable fares. The Vineyard schools asked to pay an annual rate instead, because of bookkeeping difficulties among the various districts.

There was no apparent opposition to the increase from Vineyard school officials.

The only contested vote of the day came when the board revised its policy for town and county travel rates. All officials will continue to travel at half price, even if they are in a vehicle.

Ms. Roessel voted alone to charge the same 50 per cent rate for prisoners transported by the Dukes County sheriff's department. The rate was requested by sheriff Michael McCormack, who did not attend the meeting. The measure failed 4-1, and full fares will still apply to prisoners.

Ms. Roessel said she thought Nantucket representative Flint Ranney would support her. Instead Mr. Ranney joined other board members, who felt strongly that the boat line should not subsidize prisoner travel, which is funded by the state. The Nantucket sheriff transports prisoners by airplane.

Dukes County manager E. Winn Davis spoke in favor of the cut rate, noting that state funding for the sheriff's department has decreased in recent years.

Boat line governors, save Ms. Roessel, were unimpressed.

Ms. Roessel's three-year term ends in December, and earlier in the week, Mr. Davis reported the final field of candidates for the post. In addition to Ms. Roessel, the applicants are:

Oak Bluffs resident Kenneth DeBettencourt, Oak Bluffs resident and port council member Mark N. Hanover, Vineyard Haven resident James T. Morse, Oak Bluffs resident Joanne M. Philbrick, Vineyard Haven resident and current county commissioner Robert M. Sawyer, and Edgartown resident Mark A. Snider.

Mr. Davis said interviews will not begin until November. The county commission expects to make the appointment by Thanksgiving.