The recent request from the New Bedford fast ferry operator to eliminate winter operations makes this an appropriate time to review the SSA’s actions in establishing the New Bedford service.
Contrary to the opinion expressed in a recent editorial in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, Islanders are fortunate that the SSA decided not to get into the business of actually operating this service, as this would have resulted in higher fares for all of us.
A bit of history. Some seven or eight years ago, with strong and effective lobbying from New Bedford, the state legislature expanded the voting membership of the authority governing board from three representatives to five, adding one voting member from New Bedford and one from Barnstable. At about the same time, the then top management and the SSA board, both strong advocates of acquiring the existing New Bedford ferry operation, decided to purchase the Schamonchi, a privately owned ferry operation which provided passenger service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. The reasoning behind the purchase was that unless the SSA took this action and initiated fast ferry service, private operators would do so, which would seriously affect the SSA’s finances by diverting large numbers of passengers from Woods Hole.
The proposed SSA operation of the New Bedford fast ferry service was a major component of a so-called business plan. A critical assumption in the business plan was that a large number of passengers would switch from the Woods Hole service to the new fast ferry service via New Bedford. In addition to greatly improving service to New Bedford, another important benefit was supposed to be a significant decrease in traffic on the bridges to Cape Cod and on Cape roadways. This assumption that many passengers would switch from Woods Hole was based on little factual data, and has proved to be inaccurate, as there has not been a significant shift.
Fortunately, before the SSA had a chance to move ahead with their own New Bedford fast ferry operation, there was a change in management as well as a new board. The purchase of the Schamonchi had already cost the boat line half a million dollars, and the annual operating loss during their first year was close to a million dollars. Rather than purchase vessels and operate a fast ferry service with a union crew, the new management recommended, and the board approved, a plan to ask for bids from private companies to operate the New Bedford fast ferry service. The agreement with the bidders included a provision for increasing revenues to the SSA with higher fast ferry ridership. This arrangement virtually assured that if there was a substantial diversion of trips from Woods Hole to the new private service, there would be no significant financial impact on the boat line.
The successful bidder was an experienced operator of fast ferries in New England who has provided comfortable new vessels and excellent service.
The operation provides much-needed service to and from New Bedford, with connections to Providence and the nearby airport. It is relatively well used in the summer, but the ridership has been very disappointing in the winter, even before the recent economic downturn. Last year, there was an average of only four persons per trip in the winter months. Many had hoped that work opportunities would develop for residents of both New Bedford and the Vineyard and that a commuting pattern would develop. This has not happened.
It has been suggested that greater publicity and a closer integration with the SSA’s operation would greatly increase the fast ferry’s ridership. The owners of the service report they have advertised broadly, and they do not see how additional advertising would be economically effective. Vineyarders and frequent travelers to the Vineyard cannot help but be aware of the fast ferry service. They see the operation every time they use the SSA ferries, as the fast ferry docks at the SSA terminals, and the check-in counters are in the SSA’s ticket office and waiting rooms.
While a major public relations campaign and a greater integration with the SSA operation may be desirable and may increase ridership somewhat, it is extremely doubtful that there would be a marked improvement in the economics of the operation. A decision on the request to end winter service has been put off at the request of New Bedford, as city officials are probably looking for some subsidy to maintain this most unprofitable operation. If the SSA now operated New Bedford service, there is little doubt that they would be required to maintain the winter operation, and the losses would show up in our fares.
What all this points out is that Steamship Authority management and the board made a wise decision some years ago when they decided not to get directly into the New Bedford fast ferry business, but rather leave it up to private enterprise. There has been no large shift of passengers from Woods Hole to New Bedford, and off-season operations are real money losers. The bottom line would be much worse with SSA union agreements. We would all be paying higher fares if the SSA operated the New Bedford fast ferry service. The Steamship Authority deserves praise for its past actions rather than criticism.
Dan Greenbaum is a retired civil engineer and transportation expert who lives in Chilmark.