Vineyard SSA Governor Seeks Sweeping Review of License Agreements

Gazette Senior Writer

Alarmed by rising costs and falling ridership on Steamship Authority ferries, Vineyard boat line governor Marc Hanover yesterday called for a thorough review of SSA license agreements with private carriers.

"I'm not in favor of giving away one more seat," Mr. Hanover declared at the monthly boat line meeting in Woods Hole yesterday morning.

Concluding his year as chairman of the SSA board of governors, Mr. Hanover prevailed on his colleagues to renew the proposed agreements for one year, instead of the three-year contracts recommended by Authority management.

But Mr. Hanover's argument to hold the line on allowable capacity failed to carry the day when it came to Hy-Line, a major carrier on the Hyannis-Nantucket route. The three mainland governors lined up with Nantucket governor Flint Ranney and agreed to allow Hy-Line to carry more passengers on its high-speed ferry Grey Lady, outvoting Mr. Hanover 4-1.

It marked the first split vote on a major policy issue between the two Islands, which control the board through weighted votes, since Mr. Hanover and Mr. Ranney joined the board.

Yesterday's meeting also briefly pulled back the curtain on lengthy contract negotiations between the Authority and its largest union, the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association.

Union representative William Campbell said the unlicensed employees represented by the unit had rejected management's latest offer by a vote of 130-0. Mr. Campbell called the proposal little more than a pay cut. Employees in the largest single bargaining unit at the boat line have been working without a contract since 2002.

Governors also voted to renew the boat line's support of the Park and Ride lot in Tisbury for another year. The boat line splits operational costs for the shuttle service with the Martha's Vineyard Regional Transit Authority. In the 12 months ending in October, the SSA contributed $64,210 toward the operation.

The ferry licensing discussion came against a backdrop of flattening financial performance at the state-chartered boat line, which provides the only year-round passenger and vehicle ferry service between the mainland and the two Islands.

SSA treasurer Robert Davis reported yesterday that net operating income came to $5 million for the first 11 months of the year, about $1.5 million lower than expected.

The news led Mr. Hanover to stake out a harder line than recommended by senior managers on the license renewals.

Three companies - Freedom Cruise Line Inc., Cape and Islands Transport Inc., and Hyannis Harbor Tours Inc., commonly known as Hy-Line - requested multi-year renewals.

Freedom, which operates a seasonal ferry between Harwich and Nantucket, asked for a three-year renewal but no increase in passenger capacity. The board voted to renew the license for one year, and removed a three per cent cap used to calculate license fees.

Cape and Islands Transport, which operates the seasonal Pied Piper ferry between Falmouth and Edgartown, asked for a three-year renewal, and also asked to increase capacity on its last trip off-Island on Sundays and holidays from 95 to 149, and to run an extra trip off-Island on Sundays and holidays as needed.

SSA managers recommended against the increased capacity, but recommended a regularly scheduled extra trip on Sundays and holidays.

The board voted for a one-year renewal, but will allow no increase in the level of service.

But the discussion took a turn in a new direction when it came to the Hy-Line request.

The Hy-Line application requested the freedom to carry up to 298 passengers on all trips on its year-round Hyannis-Nantucket high-speed ferry Grey Lady. The vessel is currently limited to 149 passengers on most trips. The company also asked to use the high-speed ferry Lady Martha in place of a conventional ferry on seasonal inter-Island service between the Vineyard and Nantucket.

SSA managers recommended allowing the Grey Lady to carry up to 200 passengers, even though they conceded the move would siphon revenue from the boat line.

"The increase will serve the public by providing them greater access to a reliable means of transportation that may be much more convenient for them than the Authority's vessels and the airlines," SSA general counsel Steven Sayers wrote in a staff summary.

Robert Jones, chairman of the boat line port council, said the council backed the increase in capacity, but only after prolonged discussion.

"We realize ridership is down on the Steamship," Mr. Jones said. But he said the council also saw Hy-Line as providing a solid year-round service to Nantucket.

By allowing the Grey Lady to carry more passengers, Mr. Jones said, "The Steamship would have to competitively go out and fight for the ridership. Sometimes competition is better for the public than controlled competition."

Touching on the sore subject of the boat line's high-speed ferry Flying Cloud, which has been plagued by mechanical problems and is now slated for replacement, Mr. Ranney quoted Nantucket port council member Nat Lowell, who said: "Hy-Line is the fast ferry lifeline to Nantucket."

Mr. Ranney said he was prepared to recommend a three-year renewal with a one-year review, but Barnstable governor Robert O'Brien said Hy-Line should receive the same one-year renewal as the other two carriers.

Mr. Hanover stood his ground on the subject of capacity. "I'm not going to vote for increased capacity," he said. The Vineyard governor said he would agree to allow the high-speed ferry to operate on the inter-Island route.

But the other members declined to break the Hy-Line request into separate pieces, saying it constituted a package.

In the end governors agreed to grant Hy-Line the 200-passenger capacity on the Grey Lady for one year in a 4-1 vote.

Also yesterday, Mr. Campbell rose to take issue with what he called the threatening tone of a letter sent by Authority general manager Wayne Lamson to union employees.

"Is this where you want to get into this?" Mr. Hanover asked Mr. Campbell. There were no more comments in open session on the issue.

In the letter, Mr. Lamson wrote in part: "Nothing we are proposing at the bargaining table will change the fact that the Authority is a good place to work, with good-paying jobs and benefits.

"With our proposed new wage rates, ranging from $18.39 to $23.77 per hour, you will continue to be among the highest-paid sailors and marine oilers in the country . . . . But in order to preserve these high wages, we have to begin to rein in some of the more expensive and wasteful practices and conditions that have flourished over the years."

Management wants union members to pay five per cent toward the cost of their medical coverage, agree to make work rules more flexible, and reduce or eliminate premium pay for work performed during regular watches.

Mr. Campbell said the offer effectively represents a pay cut to his membership. "They just want a fair contract," he said.