Time for Guaranteed Standby? an Old Idea Gets New Airing

By ALEXIS TONTI

A Steamship Authority plan to reinstitute guaranteed standby on a trial basis this summer has at least one Oak Bluffs committee campaigning for a complete revival of the old standby policy, and has sparked an Islandwide debate on the boat line vehicle reservation program.

When SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel's plan to try a limited guaranteed standby on summer weekends was announced several months ago, it immediately drew mixed reaction from residents and public officials. Some said that allowing standby for 15 cars on weekend days was hardly worth the effort. Some predicted traffic snarls and confusion. And some said the boat line needed to do more to accommodate last-minute travelers.

In response to the growing debate, the Dukes County commissioners now have scheduled a forum on the issue. The meeting is set for Wednesday, June 16, at 5 p.m. at the Vineyard Transit Authority.

"So far we have heard from only one of the three down-Island towns. But we need to hear from everyone: people in the business community, residents, selectmen, public safety officials," county manager E. Winn Davis said this week.

Looking ahead to the next meeting of the SSA board of governors, Peter Martell, chairman of the Oak Bluffs economic planning and development committee, is already urging merchants to turn out in support of bringing back guaranteed standby seven days a week.

That boat line meeting is set for June 24 in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

Business leaders in Tisbury have not visited the issue yet this year, but last spring the Tisbury Business Association (TBA) signed a joint letter with the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA) asking the SSA to reexamine standby.

"Since standby has not been utilized in years past there has been a decrease in business activity," TBA president Jeff Kristal said this week.

"Standby is wonderful for businesses. It's that much easier to shop when you know you'll be waiting in standby for five hours. It gives people the opportunity to go back up to Main street, Water street, Beach Road," said Mr. Kristal.

In recent years the boat line has operated a summer program that offers drivers standby on weekdays, but a reservation-only policy for weekends.

The shift to reservation-only on weekends dates back almost a decade, to the July Fourth weekend in 1995 when an unprecedented crush of traffic descended on Woods Hole.

By that Saturday morning the standby line exceeded 600 vehicles, filling the terminal lots, stretching up Woods Hole Road and creating gridlock throughout Falmouth. The SSA ran extra ferries starting at midnight, and some waited more than 14 hours to travel to the Island.

In the aftermath, SSA managers, public safety officials and residents began to call for reform.

A similar incident at the SSA terminal in Vineyard Haven during July Fourth the following year - when the standby line peaked at 500 cars with some drivers waiting 12 hours to take the ferry - drove home the point. Guaranteed standby on summer weekends was eliminated.

But now the policy is back, albeit in a very different form.

Ms. Roessel's pilot program calls for guaranteed standby to begin in July at the Tisbury and Woods Hole terminals only. It will be limited to travelers with Islander-preferred status.

Thursday through Sunday, only 15 cars will be allowed to wait in line. Travelers who join the line will not be allowed to call for day-of-sailing reservations, another option for getting off on short notice.

Ms. Roessel sees the idea as a compromise that would minimize any impact on the SSA terminals while providing a measure of flexibility for Island travelers.

But a number of Oak Bluffs merchants say it does not even begin to address the problem and that the time has come to consider a broad revamping of the SSA vehicle reservation system.

OBA executive director Renee Balter described the problem posed by a reservation-only policy.

"When standby was in practice you could tell people that if they arrived by a certain time they would get over. Now, to say that 15 cars can get over, that doesn't help the innkeeper," said Mrs. Balter - who is an innkeeper herself.

"Oak Bluffs doesn't even suffer as much as the other towns, especially up-Island. Those are people who need to know they can bring their cars to reach their ultimate destination," she added.

"Fifteen cars a day is not guaranteed standby for those of us who were looking for some sort of attention to that policy," said OBA president Dennis DaRosa.

"Something needs to be done to the entire reservation system. Right now people make a reservation, get on an earlier boat, and leave spaces on the later boats that people don't know are there," said Mr. DaRosa.

"If the Steamship Authority can make it more efficient, so that people can make real-time reservations to get to the Vineyard and off again, that might solve part of the problem."

In a letter to Oak Bluffs business owners, Mr. Martell makes his case, pointing to ferries that he says often run at 80 per cent capacity. That, he says, is evidence that the boats can handle additional traffic.

"Unfortunately the SSA leadership is splintered at best and has lost focus on their mission. They are the lifeline to the Vineyard. They are an extension of the highways and byways of the state, and they cannot, and must not, interfere with our tourist industry," he wrote.

"The reservations system basically is broken. Unless you know the tricks you can't get a reservation," Mr. Martell said this week. "It's more than just a business concern. People who live here ought to be able to get off and on without fighting for a reservation.

"There are ways [guaranteed standby] could be approached that haven't been addressed," said Mrs. Balter, listing off-site vehicle staging areas as one possible way to control traffic.

"It is too bad so much negativity has gone into trying to figure out ways to boost the income for the Steamship Authority. We all know that ridership is down, and I don't think they have looked to the business community here as part of the solution," said Mrs. Balter.