Still On Time

The Chappaquiddick Ferry, that tidy, profitable and often forgotten enterprise which plies the tideswept entrance to the Edgartown harbor and is the lifeline for a hundred-odd families who call the outpost of Chappaquiddick home, is due for a change in ownership soon.

Roy Hayes, the dedicated owner who has been the steward of the On Time for twenty one years, is ready to sell the ferry so he can have a little more free time in his life. Concerned at the prospect of this change, the Edgartown selectmen some months ago appointed a committee to hold public discussions and study the matter. The committee is set to make its recommendation next month.

Mr. Hayes essentially has two options: sell to another private operator or to the town.

But there is only one practical solution: leave the Chappaquiddick Ferry in private ownership, which has been its track through history, going all the way back to the days of the late Anthony (Midge) Bettencourt, who built the first mechanized ferry in 1935, named the City of Chappaquiddick.

An open barge that carries three, and sometimes four cars, the ferry is indeed a unique operation. At one time the arrangement was a public-private partnership; the town owned the slips and ramps, while the ferry itself was privately owned. But about ten years ago Edgartown voters agreed to transfer ownership of the slips and the ramps to Mr. Hayes, who also took on the responsibility for their upkeep.

The people who live on Chappaquiddick have an intimate relationship with their ferry. They are on a first-name basis with the captains and deckhands. They travel the ferry by car and also frequently by foot, when going to Edgartown for errands or ice cream or a trip to the movies or the public library. When mechanical problems crop up, as of course they will whenever engines and rudders meet saltwater and weather, Chappaquiddick residents know that Mr. Hayes will be on the spot, most of the time making the repairs himself. And when there is an emergency in the middle of the night, they know Mr. Hayes or one of his captains will be there in minutes to transport them to the other side.

This relationship between the ferry and the Chappaquiddick residents is — to quote the catchy Visa advertisement — priceless.

Town ownership of the ferry would be a recipe for disaster. The lifeline to Chappaquiddick should not be left to the whim of Edgartown voters, the constraints of the annual town budget and a government bureaucracy. Another idea that has been floated in recent weeks is for the town to own the ferry and contract with the Vineyard Transit Authority to operate it. The transit authority is a well-run public enterprise, but it has its own perennial budget constraints and would likely view the Chappy ferry as an easy source of cash to balance the books. But that is not the purpose of the ferry.

During a public debate about whether to spend town money to repair the ramps more than fifteen years ago, Mr. Hayes went straight to the heart of the matter. “Our job is to take care of the people on Chappy . . . . We don’t receive any complaints from those people. We take care of our responsibility,” he told the selectmen at the time.

Still On Time, the Chappaquiddick Ferry should without question remain in private ownership.