New Ferry's Design: Last Call for Comment

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By ALEXIS TONTI

The new Steamship Authority ferry will bear the signature stripe of the Islander, a tribute to the retiring vessel that has plied the route between the Vineyard and Woods Hole for 54 years. But the similarity ends there. The new boat will be faster and with increased capacity for cars, paving the way for what boat line managers say will be a more efficient operating schedule.

A meeting to hear public comment on the final design for the new ferry will be held on the Vineyard next Thursday, August 12. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at the boat line terminal in Vineyard Haven.

The plan for the replacement vessel has been brought to the Vineyard at several key points in the design process since early concept drawings were first unveiled nearly two years ago. The new ferry is expected to cost between $22 million and $25 million. It is planned to be built and ready for service by spring 2006.

The Vineyard meeting marks the last stop before acting general manager Wayne Lamson asks for board approval to put the design out to bid at the regular SSA meeting later this month on Nantucket.

The ferry design was prepared by the Elliott A. Design Group of Seattle, Wash. It calls for a double-ended ferry, eliminating the need for turning around before entering the slip in either port. The ferry would be 250 feet long and 64 feet wide, with a capacity of 60 cars on the freight deck. Two hydraulic lift car decks would provide space for an additional 16 cars.

Currently, the Islander can handle about 50 cars.

As planned, the new ferry will be capable of making the trip between Woods Hole and the Vineyard in about 35 minutes (moving at its fastest at a speed of 16 knots). It would have two direct drive diesel engines.

Boat line managers envision that with the boat making more trips in an operating day and - when needed - carrying more cars, other ferries in the SSA fleet will be taken off the run, ultimately cutting costs.

Early drawings for the ferry called for one center pilot house. But in response to safety concerns raised by the crew and by the public, the design was changed to accommodate two pilot houses, one at either end of the boat.

The lift decks also mark a change from the earliest proposal.

When SSA managers first started pushing the lift decks, in January 2003, the potential for extra car capacity became a point of some debate on the Vineyard. Island leaders and residents raised concerns about adding cars to roads already congested in the summer - and pointed in particular to Five Corners, the overburdened intersection just down the road from the Vineyard Haven terminal, the main port of entry for SSA vessels.

But SSA managers say the lift decks would not be used on every run. Instead they would provide flexibility, allowing crew members to alter the vehicle loading configuration depending on the balance of trucks and cars on any given trip.

In addition, the lift decks would provide a cushion to accommodate extra demand during heavy travel periods, such as summer holiday weekends, or to catch up after weather cancellations.

But the boat line does not plan to increase the total amount of cars and trucks it carries to the Island.

"We plan to show the same vehicle carrying capacity by taking vessels off the route. This way we would save money, but provide the same overall number of spaces to hopefully meet the current demand," said Mr. Lamson.

SSA director of engineering Carl Walker said that when the lift decks are not in use, there will be at least a 14-foot overhead for trucks. When the decks are dropped down, the overhead would decrease to about eight feet. Cars being staged on the lift decks would drive on, park and - once secured - be lifted up one level, so that drivers and passengers then would exit directly onto the mezzanine deck.

There will be indoor seating for 600 passengers, including space designated as a quiet room, "for people who want to get away from the noise, businesspeople who want an area to work in or students who need to study," said Mr. Lamson.

Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel yesterday agreed that the vessel design is intended to provide flexibility and efficiency, but said she was not entirely pleased with its overall look.

Ms. Roessel added: "I just hope that the people of this Island will feel like they're home when they get on this boat in the same way that they feel like they're home when they get on the Islander."

The Islander, built in 1950 at a cost of $687,510, was designed by architect Eads Johnson. The vessel was the first diesel-powered ferry built specifically for the Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven route.