Private Ferry Companies Draw Increasing Share of Passengers

Gazette Senior Writer

The popularity of Steamship Authority ferries with trucks continues to grow.

But the number of people riding the Authority ferries compared with last year is essentially flat. The number of automobiles, which the boat line defines as including sport utility vehicles, has dipped a bit.

Meanwhile, the popularity of private ferry lines for passengers traveling from the mainland to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket continues to increase - amounting to a loss in market share for the boat line when it comes to passenger traffic. Under state law, the ferry companies are restricted from carrying freight to the Islands.

And the SSA is not the only carrier to see softening passenger numbers. At the Martha's Vineyard Airport, the total enplanements on Cape Air (the number of people who board a commercial flight) is down for the first six months of the year as compared with the same time period last year - dropping to 11,212 from 11,995.

Since the boat line's high-water mark in 2002, when it carried just over 3 million people, the number of passengers has slid by almost 400,000. The Authority at present is carrying about the same number of people that it carried a decade ago.

Automobile traffic has declined at the Authority in recent years, while truck traffic has increased.

In the eyes of SSA general manager Wayne Lamson, increasing the number of passengers on boat line ferries is paramount.

"We have lots of capacity to carry additional passengers," Mr. Lamson said yesterday. "It goes right to the bottom line."

That's because it costs the Authority the same amount of money to operate its ferries, whether 60 or 600 passengers are on board. Extra passengers translate into extra revenue.

For the Steamship Authority, July and August are the money months of the calendar year, covering all those off-season months when the boat line expects to operate at a loss, and does.

Through July 21, the most recent period for which SSA traffic statistics are available, the number of passengers riding Authority ferries compared with last year is up .2 per cent, to 1,250,000.

Car traffic is off 1.3 per cent, at 221,180 cars. The number of trucks is up 12 per cent, to almost 88,200.

These trends are reflected on the Vineyard route, where the number of passengers is up .6 per cent, to 1,022,000; the automobiles are off 1.3 per cent, to 189,000; and the trucks are up 11.5 per cent, to 60,300.

Through July 21, the Authority's Nantucket route, when compared to last year, is showing a 1.2 per cent decline in passengers, a 1.1 per cent decline in automobiles, and a 13.1 per cent increase in trucks.

Through May, the most recent month for which results are available for the private ferry companies licensed by the Authority, all the companies are showing improved results.

Most prominent among them is Hy-Line, which carried 96,421 passengers on its Nantucket route, an increase of 20,930, or 27.8 per cent, and 13,835 passengers on its Vineyard route, where the introduction of a fast ferry has pushed the year-to-date numbers up by almost 12,000 passengers.

New England Fast Ferry, which operates two fast ferries between New Bedford and the Vineyard ports of Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, is up 5,918, or 27.8 per cent, for the first five months of the year. The second of the company's two fast ferries came into service last May.

Michael Glasfeld, president of New England Fast Ferry, said his company's service on the route is so new that even small increases tend to show up as large percentage jumps. In contrast, Mr. Glasfeld said, the boat line has a mature audience with very small percentage rises or declines.

But Mr. Glasfeld welcomes the higher ridership numbers. "We're happy for it, we really are," he said yesterday.

Adding the second boat, he said, has increased the company's daily round-trips to nine. That has helped bring aboard more passengers by offering a more constant and consistent service.

He said three main groups are riding the company's ferries: contractors and tradesmen traveling to construction jobs on the Island; student-athletes traveling to games; and people traveling to the Vineyard for casual day trips or to stay for several days for pleasure.

The other licensed carriers also are showing increases, albeit sometimes small ones. Falmouth Ferry Service, which operates the seasonal Pied Piper service between Falmouth and Edgartown, is up 11 to 597. Freedom Cruise Line, which operates between Harwich and Nantucket, is up 105 to 350.

Although the Authority passenger totals are staying flat, Mr. Lamson said, the boat line is losing market share to its competitors.

The competition is most telling on the Nantucket route, where Hy-Line's Grey Lady fast ferry carried 27,795 passengers in May, compared to 16,705 passengers carried by the SSA fast ferry Flying Cloud. The Authority plans to take delivery of a replacement for the Flying Cloud, the Iyanough, by mid-November.

Authority managers are mulling ways to reverse loss in market share.

The Authority may decide to increase its television advertising, Mr. Lamson said. Expanding the Vineyard schedule next spring by adding a 6 a.m. ferry departure from Woods Hole and a 9:30 p.m. departure from Vineyard Haven also might help.

In recent months, the Authority also has emphasized the out-of-town bus connections to its ferry service out of Woods Hole. Mr. Lamson said whether the push is paying off remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, like a farmer watching the weather, Mr. Lamson is hoping for sun for the rest of the summer to induce people to ride Authority ferries.

"The weather's been pretty good in July," he said. "We're hoping that continues into August."