New Bedford civic leaders this week doubled down on their push to have the Steamship Authority begin summer freight service between their city and the Vineyard, despite a detailed analysis from SSA senior managers that shows the service would be both impractical and prohibitively expensive.
At the monthly boat line meeting held in New Bedford Tuesday, SSA governor and board chairman John Tierney led the charge for freight service between the Whaling City and the Island.
“We have a facility here, I brought you up here for a reason: to see this harbor,” said Mr. Tierney from the third floor of the New Bedford Whaling Museum where the meeting was held. “The harbor is perfectly capable of taking any kind of transportation. . . We’re even willing to take your trash and your hazardous waste through this city,” he said.
Mr. Tierney pulled out all the stops, interrupting the meeting to introduce his fellow SSA governors to New Bedford mayor Jonathan Mitchell who made a guest appearance.
“We stand ready to . . . make commerce between the Islands and New Bedford, Woods Hole and Barnstable as easy and as profitable as we can,” the mayor told the governors.
But boat line general manager Wayne Lamson brought the discussion down to earth with a feasibility study that shows exactly what the boat line learned some 10 years ago when it examined the same subject: freight service from New Bedford to the Island makes no economic sense.
“The staff does not see a scenario where it would be cost effective for the authority to offer freight service from New Bedford to Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Lamson said.
Mr. Lamson’s study explored several options, including redirecting service from Woods Hole to New Bedford and adding overnight trips to New Bedford. But as the staff summary bluntly concluded:
“Since all of our revenues are derived from the rates and fares we charge, the authority needs to maintain an efficient operation which, by definition, requires the shortest ferry routes, which result in both the highest possible revenues (due to the ability to run the largest number of trips) and lowest possible operating costs (due to the short time it takes to operate each trip.”
The trip from New Bedford to Vineyard Haven takes two and a half hours compared to 45 minutes from Woods Hole. The issue is not new. New Bedford ferry service was at the center of a heated political battle 10 years ago when powerful politicians from the city of New Bedford pressed a plan to reopen ferry service between the Whaling City and the two Islands. The end result was an expanded board of governors with voting members from Barnstable and New Bedford, and today’s privately-operated, high-speed passenger service to the Vineyard, which has seen a steady series of cutbacks in service in recent years due to poor ridership.
Despite all this, Falmouth governor Robert Marshall pressed for additional study. “I think that we’ve got to go further,” Mr. Marshall said. “I appreciate all the reasons why we’re not able to accomplish this but I think we’ve got to stay with our efforts and our energies to figure out how to do it, not how not to do it.”
Mr. Marshall said reducing traffic in Falmouth and Hyannis is a key issue.
“We’re dealing with trash trucks on Woods Hole Road, we’re dealing with tanker trucks on Woods Hole Road. It’s a residential road,” he said. “It’s not as if we don’t have a port that would welcome that kind of industrial use. New Bedford is anxious to become part of the system. I think we’ve got to figure out a way.”
Mr. Lamson said the boat line could put out a request for proposals for a private freight operator to run the service instead, if the route can be shown to be profitable.
Robert Jones, a member of the port council, was dubious. “I don’t know how the dollars would work out for any kind of purveyor to succeed in this,” he said.
Nantucket governor H. Flint Ranney agreed. “As management has proposed this, they’ve already said it isn’t going to work, so why would we spend a lot of energy and time doing an RFP and studying it?” he asked.
Vineyard governor Marc Hanover said the management study speaks plainly for itself.
“I don’t see New Bedford being viable [in terms of] dollars and sense at all,” Mr. Hanover said. “I also would like to remind the other members there’s a huge financial gain for these towns for being the doorway to the Vineyard and Nantucket.”
The governors also discussed the possibility of barging trash and fuel between the Islands and New Bedford.
“The problem that I see with more barging is if we were to barge fuel and trash, that’s lost business to the Steamship Authority,” said Mr. Ranney. “Those would be trucks that aren’t on the boat and aren’t paying. . . I know on Nantucket the whole question of New Bedford service has been a thorn in our side for a long time and I would hesitate to just go out with an RFP and stir up the old wounds.”
Mr. Marshall moved to table the discussion until the next monthly meeting.