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The Steamship Authority: Supplying the Demand

Conservation Almanac Special Edition


The Steamship Authority, Supplying the Demand
Is a $60 million new terminal really for "existing traffic, not growth"?

Last week, the Steamship Authority gave two public (though under-publicized) presentations detailing their plans for a major expansion of their Woods Hole terminal. The roughly $60 million project would replace the old ticket office with a larger 2-story building – which due to its size, position, and ostentatious appearance, has outraged many Woods Hole residents. More concerning to Vineyarders, however, should be the broader impact of the entire project on our Island, in particular the conversion of the third boat slip from maintenance to active use.
Would the ability to load and unload three large ferries instead of two result in a 50% increase in cars taken to the Island on summer weekends? Probably not in the very near future (for one thing, the SSA needs another boat the size of the Island Home to pull off that feat), but it is still a troubling harbinger of the traffic to come.

The print version of last week's presentation (available at the SSA website) lists seven “Project Goals” on the first page. The seventh of these is heartening for conservationists, and its wording unambiguous: “size to accommodate existing traffic, not growth.” But would the SSA really spend $60 million – more than the new Tisbury School rejected this spring by voters – to upgrade and expand a terminal in a climate of zero growth? Viewed strictly from a business perspective, should they?
On the contrary, all evidence suggests that the SSA should expect continued growth of traffic. In what is quickly becoming an annual tradition, last month the Gazette reported on this summer’s record-breaking ferry traffic: in June, July, and August of 2018, 157,114 cars made the trip to the Vineyard. That number topped a previous high reached in 2017 . . . that number besting the previous high recorded in 2016. The Gazette story also provides a revealing look into the apparent contradiction between the project’s plan to open the third slip and its stated goal to merely “accommodate existing traffic”:
SSA general manager Robert Davis said the increase in vehicle traffic can be tracked directly to added capacity on the Vineyard route. . . . “We’ve been responding to demand,” Mr. Davis told the Gazette. He said he does not anticipate adding more trips in the future. “At this point we’re at capacity. We don’t have any other places to berth a vessel.”

Turning back the clock a bit, a report released by the SSA in January of 2015 yielded this surprising topline result: car and passenger trips had remained nearly flat over the previous five years. (It is notable that the $60 million terminal redesign project was already in the works then.) The MV Chamber of Commerce, tasked with promoting local business, especially the tourism industry, understandably saw this five-year (relative) lack of growth as a problem to be solved. (“Relative” because the “pretty flat” growth as described by the SSA was actually an increase in car traffic of 1.3% annually.) At that time, the Chamber praised the SSA’s marketing department for their efforts in helping to promote the Island as a tourist destination through their approximately $1 million advertising budget.
Nearly four years later, with the slow growth problem rather emphatically defeated, today the Steamship Authority has a $1,323,470 advertising budget (see 2018 annual budget, page 7). When the budget for promoting growth grows in response to growth, it is reasonable to conclude that the Steamship is not just “responding to demand,” but also actively working to create it. In light of this history, it strains credulity to claim that a fully operational third slip will not eventually lead to significantly more ferry trips.
Following on last week’s sparsely attended open house in Vineyard Haven, the next chance for the public to weigh in on the actions of the SSA will be at the monthly meeting of the board of governors, tomorrow (Tuesday the 16th) at 3:30 at the high school PAC. Coverage by both Island newspapers of the previous public meetings indicates that criticism of the new terminal project is unlikely to result in any substantial changes at this point. (At the Woods Hole presentation, concerns of residents were quickly dismissed and no notes were taken.)

To protect our Island quality of life, however, the more important – but also difficult and long-term – goal must be to moderate the pro-growth direction of the Steamship Authority. When the Chamber of Commerce stokes the tourism economy ever hotter they are simply doing their job. But when a quasi-governmental authority, granted monopoly power over ferry transit in exchange for promoting the common good, does the same they are elevating one part of their mission over the rest. One expression of that mission can be found in Section 6 of the Authority’s 1960 enabling legislation:
  • The exercise of the powers granted by this act will be in all respects for the benefit of the people of the commonwealth, for the increase of their commerce and prosperity, and for the improvement of their health and living conditions, and as the operation and maintenance of the steamship line by the Authority will constitute the performance of essential governmental functions, the Authority shall not be required to pay any taxes or assessments upon any property acquired or used by the Authority under the provisions of this act or upon the income therefrom, and the bonds and refunding bonds issued under the provisions of this act, their transfer and the income therefrom (including any profit made on the sale thereof), shall at all times be free from taxation within the commonwealth.
Top photo: In 2007 the Steamship Authority's new Island Home replaced the much smaller Islander. At the commissioning of the Island Home, SSA Chairman David Oliveira described the much smaller Islander as representing "when the Island was a quieter, simpler place with a quieter, simpler pace."  
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