Boat Line Eyes Rate Increases

Preliminary Budget Unveiled; New Fee Hikes Are Proposed for All Parking Permits and Hazardous Trips

By CHRIS BURRELL

Despite rising fuel costs and lagging car traffic on Steamship Authority ferries, the boat line leadership still plans to hold the line next year on ticket rates for cars and walk-on passengers.

In other words, no fare hikes. The cost to park your car in a mainland lot, however, is another story.

SSA acting general manager and treasurer Wayne Lamson proposed raising the parking rates in the mainland lots by as much as 36 per cent beginning next calendar year.

Permit holders for the Woods Hole lot could see their annual fees jump from $550 to $750 a year. Daily rates could go from $6 to $8 in the winter and from $10 to $12 a day in the summer, according to next year's preliminary budget. The draft budget was presented to SSA governors at their monthly meeting, held at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven yesterday.

"Parking fees haven't changed since 1998," Mr. Lamson said.

That detail might not matter to Islanders who keep a car on the other side.

"That increase is outrageous. The majority of permit parkers are year-round residents of Martha's Vineyard, working people," said Dukes County commissioner Robert Sawyer, who is a longtime permit holder himself.

Carriers of hazardous materials - including gasoline and fuel oil - can expect a 20 per cent rate hike next year, if the budget is approved as presented.

The boat line board will vote next month on the nearly $63 million budget unveiled this week. The increase over this year's budget is just 1.3 per cent.

Mr. Lamson's preliminary budget revolved around projects aimed at trimming costs and raising revenues at the boat line. Modifications of the two freight boats, the Gay Head and the Katama, for example, will boost the truck-carrying capacity and reduce the number of daily trips.

Widening the decks of the two freight boats by 12 feet will cost the SSA $1.6 million but will save more than $500,000 next year alone, according to budget projections.

"Instead of six to seven trips a day, we can go to five with the same capacity," said Carl Walker, the SSA director of engineering and maintenance.

Asked whether the wider decks would affect boat stability, Mr. Walker said they would only slightly increase the rolling effect of the freight boats.

"Freight boats are like barges, very stiff," he said. "Their stability does not change in any way."

As for another ferry in the fleet - the beleaguered Flying Cloud - the prognosis was a little more troubling. Built four years ago at a cost of $8 million, the high-speed passenger ferry that serves Nantucket is already being eyed for replacement after years of mechanical troubles.

Mr. Walker said he needed a vote from SSA governors by next month to approve a $10 million replacement for the Flying Cloud, but the plans quickly ran aground.

Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel fired the first shot, pointing out that replacing the Flying Cloud by 2006 coincided with the scheduled replacement of the ferry Islander - a $22.5 million project.

"You may be stretched pretty thin," she said to Mr. Walker.

Then turning to Nantucket governor Flint Ranney, Ms. Roessel issued her next objection, saying she will not support spending money for a new high-speed ferry unless Nantucketers affirm their decision to remain part of the boat line.

Last spring, news surfaced of the late Nantucket governor Grace Grossman's efforts to explore splitting the boat line into two separate entities.

Mr. Ranney said that while he is no longer a member of the committee on Nantucket studying the feasibility of splitting from the SSA, he agreed with Ms. Roessel about backing off plans to build a new high-speed ferry.

"People on Nantucket aren't 100 per cent sure they want a fast boat from the Steamship Authority," Mr. Ranney said.

But SSA governors from Barnstable and Falmouth weren't so pleased with the alliance of the two Islands, arguing that the longer the SSA waits to replace the ailing ferry, the more it will cost the boat line in maintenance bills.

Next year's budget calls for spending nearly $900,000 on upkeep for the Flying Cloud.

Talk about spending so much money on ferry boats prompted Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey to raise his hand more than once and remind SSA leaders about promises of a new terminal in his town.

"Is money for Oak Bluffs still there even after the Islander and fast ferry?" he asked.

Mr. Walker said the Oak Bluffs terminal project remains on hold while the SSA tries to answer the concerns that the Oak Bluffs conservation commission has raised about the project's potential impact on the waterfront.

"Things are tentative at best," Mr. Walker said.

While yesterday's meeting largely focused on fiscal matters, Ms. Roessel called for more clarification on SSA safety and rescue procedures, citing last summer's incident on the Islander during which a crewman nearly drowned in the midst of a rescue drill.

A United States Coast Guard investigation, which concluded this week, blamed poor communication between crew and captain aboard the ferry for the incident.

"Is there a standardized response to emergencies on each vessel?" Ms. Roessel asked.

Mr. Lamson said quarterly inspections by the Coast Guard review safety procedures. "Our captains are fully aware of what the drills and what the crew should be doing," he said.

On a lighter note, Mr. Lamson told the board that he had decided to revamp at least one part of the telephone system at the boat line.

"We've gone back to a live switchboard operator in response to a lot of complaints from people not being able to get through and reach anybody," he said.

SSA governors said they welcomed the change but were surprised to encounter a human voice rather than a recording.

"I didn't believe she was alive," Mr. Ranney said.