For Boat Line, It Continues to Be 1997

By CHRIS BURRELL

Maybe the Vineyard has lost its appeal, or maybe it was the foul weather combined with a flagging economy, but whatever the underlying reasons, the latest traffic figures from the Steamship Authority again reflect a 13-month trend: fewer passengers and fewer cars coming to the Island.

Passenger traffic is down nearly five per cent this year compared with last year. Car traffic is down more than six per cent, according to year-to-date statistics just released, and current through Dec. 14.

The upshot is clear. Less revenue for the Steamship this year laid the groundwork for rate increases for both tourists and Islanders.

"We have to recover that lost revenue we anticipated we would have this year," SSA treasurer Wayne Lamson said Tuesday. "We still need to pay for the cost of service."

Mr. Lamson knows all the numbers, and a combined 156,000 fewer passenger trips to and from the Vineyard and Nantucket from the mainland, at an average of $7 a trip, adds up to more than $1 million shortfall.

On the Vineyard runs alone - to and from both Woods Hole and New Bedford - there were 115,346 fewer passenger trips.

Mr. Lamson said the traffic figures are similar to the levels of 1997, a benchmark desired by some Islanders.

"Haven't people wished for that? Now they've got it," said the Kathryn Roessel, Vineyard governor to the SSA.

Echoing statements made last week by SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin, Ms. Roessel pointed out: "There's no crisis here." Rates for the Vineyard route will go up only three per cent, she said, pointing out that in her view, the real pressures on the SSA aren't coming from decreased ridership but rather the increase in health insurance costs for employees and the high price of fuel.

Interestingly, national trends are also likely accounting for a drop in car and passenger traffic to the Island, said Valerie Richards, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, who watches the SSA traffic figures closely.

Only half of Americans took a vacation last summer, said Ms. Richards, and many of those who did made their plans only two weeks ahead of time.

Throw in some lousy weather forecasts, and it's not surprising that some hotels and retailers were wondering where the people were at some points during the last three seasons.

"There's a short booking window for vacations now and if you hear about bad weather on the Vineyard, you're not going to do it," she said. "But we're just one of the places that saw that. We're reflecting national trends. We're not in this alone."

Weather may have been a double-whammy this year, with storms and wind leading to the cancellation of 295 trips to and from the Island through November of this year.

That assessment may come as cold comfort to shopkeepers, who count on a robust numbers of tourists to come off those ferry boats.

But Ms. Roessel said the Steamship is planning to do more than just raise rates in response.

For one thing, there are plans to raise revenue for the SSA from other non-traditional sources such as selling advertising on boats to reach the captive audience for those 45-minute rides. Ms. Roessel said another plan is to bring back weekend standby lines on a trial basis next summer. "It's a compromise we reached," she said. "We'll start with a limited number of cars and see if we're able to integrate it. I'm still getting reports of empty spaces in some boats."

One area of SSA traffic did climb this year, and that was in excursion fares, reserved for Island residents. Those went from 159,431 trips (round trips counted as two) for most of 2002 to 172,121 for all but the last two weeks of this year.