Steamship Authority Projects Rate Hikes on Vineyard Route for the Coming Year

By JAMES KINSELLA

Steamship Authority managers confirmed yesterday that they expect to recommend rate increases for the coming year on the state-chartered boat line that provides the only year-round car and passenger service to the two Islands.

SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said the staff is including proposed increases in the draft boat line operating budget, which will come before the SSA board of governors at their meeting next Thursday in Hyannis.

Mr. Lamson did not disclose rate details for the budget, which was still being worked out by SSA staff.

But he said the increase in fuel costs alone will push the boat line toward higher fares, aside from any other contributing factors.

Passenger and automobile fares last increased at the SSA two years ago. Last year, the boat line raised freight and hazardous freight charges as well as parking fees, but left passenger and automobile rates untouched.

Mr. Lamson said senior staff managers are now examining the budget and operating schedules for the summer and fall 2006 seasons to see what costs can be trimmed to hold down the size of the proposed rate increases.

The five-member board of governors will make the final decision on what, if any, fare increases to enact. The board is scheduled to review the proposed operating budget at next Thursday's meeting in Hyannis and is scheduled to vote on the final budget at the October meeting, which will be held on the Vineyard.

In other boat line developments this week, the high-speed ferry Flying Cloud went out of service Tuesday after a problem developed with its port engine. Mr. Lamson said work was continuing on the vessel yesterday afternoon at the terminal dock in Hyannis. The ferry operates on the Nantucket run.

Mr. Lamson said Flying Cloud customers holding reservations for the lost trips were offered refunds and referred to either Hy-Line, a private Hyannis company that operates its own high-speed ferry on the Hyannis-Nantucket route, or to the slower car ferries operated on the route by the SSA.

The engine trouble represents a return to past form for the Flying Cloud, which has been plagued by engine trouble and trip cancellations since it began operating. This year the high-speed ferry has been operating much more reliably, helping to boost revenues at the boat line.

As for next year's operating budget, even the recent hurricane that struck New Orleans and part of the Gulf Coast is conspiring against the SSA.

A new double-ended ferry, the Island Home, is under construction at V.T. Halter Marine Inc. in Pascagoula, Miss. The Island Home had been slated to replace the 51-year-old Islander on the Vineyard route next June.

But while Hurricane Katrina did not wash away the Island Home hull sections, engines and generators sitting at the Halter shipyard - their condition has yet to be fully ascertained - the storm damaged the shipyard, not to mention the homes and communities of shipyard workers.

Mr. Lamson has said he now expects the Island Home will not start service until late 2006 or early 2007.

The delayed arrival itself will lead to higher costs at the boat line. SSA managers had planned to use the Island Home's vehicle-carrying capacity, larger than that of the Islander, to cut back on the number of freight boat trips in next year's schedule. Now the cutbacks are in doubt.

Mr. Lamson said the SSA may still reduce some trips on its summer and fall schedules next year as a way to cut costs.

The Thursday boat line meeting will begin at 9:30 a.m. in the second-floor conference room of the SSA terminal in Hyannis.