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Opinion | Bill Hallstein

A tipping point for the Steamship Authority

Steamship Authority ferry from Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard.
Steamship Authority ferry from Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Should Massachusetts replace the enabling act that 60 years ago gave birth to the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamship Authority? The organization was created by the state in 1960 as a quasi-independent authority “to provide adequate transportation of persons and necessaries of life” between the mainland and the islands.

Times have changed, but the Steamship Authority has not, with dire outcomes. In the spring of 2018 the “SSA experienced three blackouts, a grounding, and a number of critical IT system outages,” according to a report released in December 2018 by HMS Consulting, a consulting group hired by the Steamship Authority. “These events led to an erosion in public confidence and raised questions about the Steamship Authority’s vessel maintenance practices, fleet rotations, public communications and other aspects of its operations.”

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Underlying these challenges is a relentless population growth in southeastern Massachusetts and on the Cape and Islands, especially during the summer. And things are getting worse because, as the report underscores, the “SSA suffers from an absence of strategic planning.”

In 2017, the authority’s fleet of a nine ferries shuttled about 2.5 million passengers, more than 415,000 cars, and more than 136,000 commercial freight trucks between the mainland and Martha’s Vineyard. The Vineyard’s winter population of 15,000 swells to 100,000 in the summer, and on Nantucket, the population rises from 10,172 to over 50,000. Each year, these numbers climb higher.

This steady population growth has made getting to the islands from off-Cape a nightmare. Traffic bottlenecks at the aging Sagamore and Bourne Bridges are legend. Once on Cape Cod, the vehicles transporting goods, services, and people are funneled onto local roads to Woods Hole and Hyannis, creating congestion, noise ,and pollution, and affecting the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. The Steamship Authority then ferries passengers, cars, and commercial trucks to the Vineyard and Nantucket, the final leg of an unnecessarily long journey.

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The overburdened system is clearly at a tipping point.

A radical shift in regional transportation planning is needed. Groups such as the citizen task force SMART (Southeast Massachusetts Regional Transportation) have been promoting strategies such as diverting commercial goods and supplies to freight ferries departing from New Bedford to ease the traffic stress on the Cape bridges and local roads, but there is little regional coordination between the Steamship Authority, the Army Corps of Engineers, and others.

The Steamship Authority, which should be a leader in regional planning, solar energy, and new ideas has been expanding its operations in Woods Hole, without any real input from citizens’ groups. For example, the Steamship Authority has not yet finalized a design for a new terminal building in Woods Hole. A recent petition by over 1,000 residents fiercely objects to the height and design of the proposed building, but to date, the Steamship Authority has turned a deaf ear. It has been adamant about having a huge, out-of-place, two-story terminal which will block scenic views of the Vineyard Sound and the Elizabeth Islands.

Cost estimates on this project continue to skyrocket. In 2014, the cost of the new terminal building in Woods Hole was estimated as $3.7 million. That estimate is now $14 million. The temporary terminal building cost increased more than five-fold, from the proposed $.5 million to the actual cost of $2.7 million.

To be clear, the Steamship Authority is a boon to the region; it provides jobs on Cape Cod and the Islands, and delivers goods and services to the islands. But a range of issues need scrutiny. For example, under the enabling act, the its competitors, such as SeaStreak and Hy-Line, are licensed by the Steamship Authority, not the state.

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Radical reforms are necessary at the Steamship Authority, and that will require a fresh, independent look by the state at its operations, board structure, oversight responsibilities, and revenues. The state has to do this, because local towns have no say; the Steamship Authority’s enabling legislation gives it complete autonomy over its port towns of Falmouth, Hyannis, Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Nantucket.


Bill Hallstein is cofounder of Southeast Massachusetts Regional Transportation.