For years, the Seastreak has talked about expanding its ferry service from New Bedford to the Island beyond the summer and into the off-season. But it’s never had the demand to make a winter schedule worthwhile.

That may soon change.

With the rising cost of housing on Martha’s Vineyard pushing people to move off-Island and a growing need for more Island workers, Seastreak is now proposing daily round trips to the Vineyard geared towards commuters. The ferry line will need to get approval from the Steamship Authority, which licenses other ferry services in the region.

A Seastreak ferry pulls into Oak Bluffs. The ferry line is proposing year-round service. — Mark Alan Lovewell

In 2022, just under 145,000 passengers on the Steamship Authority’s Vineyard route used commuter book tickets — the tickets sold in packs of 46 at a discounted price. That figure is up in the past decade, from just under 98,000 commuter tickets used in 2013.

The early-morning boats from Woods Hole to the Vineyard — between 6 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. — have also seen increases in total passengers, from about 155,000 in 2013 to more than 202,000 in 2022. On those early morning trips in 2022, just under 59,000 commuter tickets were used, up from 35,485 in 2013.

Seeing the strong demand for commuter service, Seastreak is asking for the Steamship Authority’s blessing to continue daily passenger service to Oak Bluffs into the colder months. The New Bedford ferry is seeking to run two round-trip voyages on weekdays through the winter.

“We’ve been hearing that the times have changed and there’s more demand in the off-season,” said James D. Barker, vice president of sales and marketing at Seastreak. “We’re willing to give it a shot.”

The cost of tickets has not been established, but the route would cater to commuters with early morning and afternoon round-trips. Tickets could be discounted through the use of commuter books, Mr. Barker said.

Because Seastreak uses fast ferries, the crossing is only slightly longer than the trip from Woods Hole. If approved, the additional route could be a boon for construction companies, one of the largest industries on the Island.

In a poll taken by the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association, 88 per cent of its members supported the idea.

“The response was overwhelmingly in favor of seeing fast ferry commuter service from New Bedford,” said Ezra Sherman, a partner in the Vineyard Haven design firm Sherman and Associates and a member of the builders association.

Island employers are relying on commuters more and more. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Seastreak moved forward with the idea after talking with the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce and the builders association.
“It opens up a whole new group of workers that come through the Island,” said Carolina Cooney, the chamber of commerce executive director. “It’s one piece of the puzzle to meet the workforce [demands] on the Island.”

Ms. Cooney said the ferry service could potentially enable the hospital, which now has 62 commuters from off-Island, and the schools to tap into a workforce that previously had not considered working on the Island.

Currently, the trip from New Bedford to the Steamship Authority ferry in Woods Hole requires a worker to go over one of the Cape bridges, park in a Steamship lot and get on a shuttle before making the crossing.

Gary BenDavid, a Vineyard builder, said he’s worked with subcontractors that come from the New Bedford area and he knew of several people who would gladly avoid Cape traffic. For New Bedford-area workers who are getting to a Vineyard worksite by 7 a.m., days often start at 4 a.m. or earlier.

Having a direct passage could open the Island to workers from areas as far as North Dartmouth and Lakeville, Mr. BenDavid said, though he expected it would take some time to gain the service a solid following.

“You’re reducing probably five to six hours — maybe seven hours — of travel time a week from New Bedford,” he said.

He also hoped the plan could reduce congestion on the Cape, and maybe even one day lead to freight ferries from New Bedford — a longtime dream for many in Woods Hole.

The new commuter ferry idea comes as the Bourne Bridge undergoes extensive repairs. Rehabilitation work started Monday and will result in lane closures 24 hours a day possibly through late November.

Nicole Downing, a hairdresser at Benito’s in Oak Bluffs, makes the commute regularly from New Bedford and said the drive to the Steamship went from 40 minutes to two hours. Even without the construction, she’s considered selling her home in New Bedford to get closer to the ferry.

“It is mentally wearing,” Ms. Downing said. “It makes me miss a lot of time with my son.”

But she might change her mind if the New Bedford ferry starts running.

“If there was a boat here, I would not leave New Bedford,” she said.

Meanwhile, as Bourne Bridge repairs are underway, the big picture for federal and state officials continues to be finding funding to replace the bridges. In an effort to get at least some forward momentum, Gov. Maura Healey announced in August that she would prioritize first replacing the Sagamore Bridge — the common crossing for Bostonians.

The strategy strays from the original plan that would have pursued funding for both bridges at the same time. The administration put in an application for as much as $1.45 billion from the federal government.

If and when replacing the bridges becomes a reality, more commuting headaches could ensue during construction. But as all these scenarios play out, Cape and Islands officials are also pushing for other ways to get over the bridge. Earlier this month, state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who represents the Vineyard, filed a bill that would direct the state to extend its commuter rail system from Boston to Buzzards Bay, as well as study further extending trains to Falmouth, Hyannis and other parts of the Cape.

The idea has been bandied about for years, but could happen now as the extension of commuter rail to Fall River and New Bedford nears completion. The Cape is already connected to the line via Middleboro/Lakeville, and the CapeFlyer summer train annually shepherds tourists all the way to Hyannis on weekends.

The Steamship Authority already partners with the CapeFlyer, shuttling train passengers from the Bourne stop to the ferry. Getting rail to the Cape, if only Bourne, could end up easing congestion for both the Cape and the Vineyard.

Ms. Cooney expects these could all have various positive effects on the Island if completed, but the New Bedford ferry is the achievable item that could make an immediate change. Still, she said, it should be viewed as a stopgap measure to keep businesses afloat while the Island struggles with the ongoing housing crisis.

“The ideal solution would be to have more on-Island housing,” Ms. Cooney said.

Mr. Sherman agreed. While new commuter services and easier ways to get to the Vineyard would be welcomed, the Island community is still being hollowed out. He’s seen how hard it’s been to get people to be youth sports coaches,or sit on town boards.

“It doesn’t address those deficits,” he said. “We’re not repairing those potholes in the community.”