Passengers May Stay in Vehicles on Ferry Crossing, Board Rules

By ALEXIS TONTI

The Steamship Authority board of governors overruled senior management yesterday and abandoned a controversial new policy that would have barred people from staying in their cars while on board the ferries.

The boat line governors instead approved a policy to simply advise passengers to leave their cars and to improve safety below decks through an expanded set of fire prevention measures.

In a separate vote, SSA governors approved a package of other safety and security regulations aimed at bringing the boat line into compliance with the new federal Maritime Transportation Security Act.

The debate at the regular monthly boat line meeting in Woods Hole circled around ways to improve safety without implementing a strict rule requiring passengers to leave their cars.

"After receiving a vast amount of input from our fire chiefs, fire department members and Islanders who ride back and forth, I'm left with a sense that to adopt this policy as it was conceived will probably cause more problems than it will solve," said Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel.

The policy was slated to go into effect March 1, but was postponed after a closed-door session at the regular boat line meeting in February.

For several months the policy has been subject to widespread opposition by Islanders, who have long enjoyed the option of staying in their cars. But despite the growing uproar among residents, Steamship Authority management yesterday continued to press for the policy's adoption as a matter of compliance with the law.

"As the board considers this, I would urge them to keep in mind that safety is not policy. Compliance with federal laws is not a policy issue," said SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin. "We have relied on input from marine professionals and their views were resolute."

Slated for discussion in executive session, the vote on the safety and security rules was moved into the public portion of the meeting at the urging of Ms. Roessel. The Vineyard governor also asked to consider the freight deck policy apart from the other proposed regulations.

The revised policy passed by the board also calls for SSA employees to man the freight deck at all times and for more room to be left between cars.

In addition it includes a caveat that authorizes management to take whatever measures it deems necessary to improve safety on the freight deck.

Members of the Dukes County Commission and the boards of selectmen in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs turned out in force to criticize the proposed rule and reinforce the message of Islanders' resistance to the change.

The county commission and both boards of selectmen went on record as opposing the policy.

"The Tisbury selectmen are staunchly opposed to this proposal," declared board chairman Tristan Israel. "The overwhelming majority of people on the Island oppose it. If the rule is passed, it will do enormous damage to the image and credibility of the Steamship Authority on Martha's Vineyard."

As part of her push for a compromise policy, Ms. Roessel recommended doubling the number of SSA employees on watch below decks and altering the way cars are parked; they often are packed so tightly that people cannot squeeze out.

The discussion included other possible improvements to the freight deck, such as the addition of surveillance cameras and an expanded sprinkler system.

"Management came up with the notion that people should not be on the freight deck for safety, and as a consequence we are talking about sane, sensible safety regulations," said county commissioner Robert Sawyer. "We will be infinitely safer if we have able-bodied people down there to observe, raise the alarm and help others."

As the debate continued, the Vineyard and Nantucket boat line governors differed sharply from Mr. Raskin on the nuances of the issue.

Nantucket governor Grace Grossman read a letter into the record from her board of selectmen, calling the proposal "a hardship and a serious and unnecessary inconvenience."

"It doesn't matter if people stay in their cars as long as the proper [safety regulations] are in place," said Mrs. Grossman.

"It feels like we're a penal colony and management is the warden and we are constantly being told what we can and cannot do," she said. "This is a hospitality organization, and sometimes there is nothing positive in the announcement except ‘Have a nice trip' at the end."

Mr. Raskin expressed empathy for travelers who want to stay in their cars after a long drive, but painted a picture of what would happen if a fire broke out on the freight deck.

"The smoke would cause a problem more than the fire. People should not have to be checking 50 cars to see if they have occupants when they should be doing other things, like fighting the fire," Mr. Raskin said.

Falmouth governor Robert Marshall asked for clarity on the Coast Guard's position.

"What the Coast Guard regulation says is people must be able to get out and away from their cars freely in an emergency. We have been very guilty in the past of not ensuring this is so," said Ms. Roessel.

"The preexisting [Coast Guard] regulation deals with safety, but more recent regulations deal with security and are more specific about limiting access to certain areas . . . in discussions with me the Coast Guard has evidenced a clear and unyielding preference to get people off the freight deck," said Mr. Raskin.

"You get nothing from getting people off the freight deck unless you can get everybody off the freight deck," said Ms. Roessel. "In the situation where some people are exempt from this rule, you have done nothing except create a stampede of people up and down the stairs two times every trip."

"We would do better to get as many people off the freight deck as possible. It would still be a marginal improvement," said Mr. Raskin.

The board of governors divided on the vote, with Ms. Roessel, Mr. Marshall and New Bedford governor David Oliveira voting for the motion to advise passengers to leave their cars.

Barnstable governor and board chairman Robert O'Brien voted against that policy, and Mrs. Grossman abstained, saying she thought the decision should be left to the discretion of the traveler and not included as an announcement over the loudspeaker.

The five rules that were passed as a package were drafted by Thomas Creighton, a former state police lieutenant who was recently hired as the director of security for the boat line.

Rules under the new policy include:

* Travelers must arrive at least 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure to guarantee that vehicle reservations are honored.

* Only baggage carried by ticketed passengers will be allowed on the luggage carts.

* Passengers will be checked for identification on a random basis.

Mrs. Grossman addressed the 30-minute rule, pointing out that travelers could run into traffic delays or accident tie-ups that would delay their arrival.

Mr. Raskin acknowledged the need for flexibility, but added that general guidelines will prevent a rush of travelers arriving just before the boat's departure.

Mr. Raskin said the new rules will go in effect by May 1.

At the meeting's end Mr. Raskin emphasized that the recommendation to go above decks should not be taken lightly: "If Islanders see this as a green light to stay in their cars, then the wrong standard has been adopted."