SSA Set to Vote on Fare Hikes Thursday at Cornell Theatre

By JAMES KINSELLA

When the Steamship Authority board of governors convenes next Thursday morning at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard governor Marc Hanover anticipates voting for across-the-board rate increases to fund next year's $78.3 million budget.

But he said it will be the last time.

"We really have to get a handle on this," Mr. Hanover said earlier this week about the budget, slated to rise $4 million next year. "We can't keep absorbing these additional costs."

The SSA monthly meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. on the second floor of the town hall in Vineyard Haven. The boat line board is scheduled to vote on the budget and rates for 2007.

The proposed budget is 8.5 per cent higher than this year's budget, which itself is $4 million higher than the 2005 budget.

Higher costs in the coming year include $2.6 million more for depreciation, based on Authority capital projects, nearly $900,000 more for fuel costs and over $800,000 more for employee health costs.

Earlier this week, Authority general manager Wayne Lamson said the final proposed operating budget is little changed from the preliminary budget presented to the board at the September boat line meeting in Hyannis.

"Even though oil prices have come down a little bit in the past month or so, the staff has decide to stay with its original oil price assumption of $70 per barrel, up from an assumed $65 per barrel in the 2006 operating budget," Mr. Lamson said.

Of the $4 million in rate hikes in next year's budget, $3 million would come from the Vineyard route.

One-way passenger fares on the Vineyard route would rise 50 cents to $6.50, and the off-season round trip excursion car fare for Islanders will go up $7 to $52.

Mr. Hanover said he applauds cost-saving steps initiated by Authority managers, such as reducing ferry vessel operating speeds to hold down on fuel costs, and eliminating certain runs that had little demand.

He also acknowledged that fuel, insurance and depreciation costs from next year's scheduled introduction of the Island Home ferry on the Vineyard route are helping to push the SSA's operating budget higher.

In the past, however, he said rising traffic volumes helped cover rising costs at the boat line.

But passenger and vehicle traffic has been falling at the Steamship Authority, and is now at levels not seen since the late 1990s.

Mr. Hanover said he does not expect business to revive in the next several years, and if rates continue to rise, travel on the boat line will become increasingly cost-prohibitive.

The Vineyard governor said manning agreements between the Authority and its unions lie at the heart of the problem. The Authority operates ferries with substantially more staffing than required under Coast Guard rules.

The boat line has yet to reach a new contract agreement with its largest union, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, which represents unlicensed workers on the ferries.

Mr. Hanover said that while he understands the unions are in place to protect the jobs and interests of their members, he said they need to recognize long-term trends affecting the financial health of the boat line.

Of the $3 million to be raised on the Vineyard route, $950,000 would come from passengers, $1.25 million from automobiles, $750,000 from trucks, and $50,000 from higher parking rates.

Because both Falmouth and the Vineyard ports of Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs charge 50-cent port embarkation fees, the proposed passenger rate increase effectively translates into a $14 round-trip cost.

SSA managers also have proposed raising the one-way child or senior citizen rate by 25 cents to $3.25; the 10-ride book by $4 to $52; and the 46-ride monthly commuter book by $10 to $120.

Round-trip excursion rates in the off-season would rise to $52 for vehicles under 17 feet, and to $72 for larger vehicles. Summer excursion rates would increase by $10 to $83 for vehicles under 17 feet, and by $10 to $103 for larger vehicles.

One-way commercial freight rates for trucks under 20 feet will increase the same as for automobiles, with trucks 20 feet or longer paying 8.5 per cent more.

The cost of an annual parking permit at Woods Hole would rise $50, to $800, and the annual permit at Palmer avenue would increase $25, to $575.