Boatline Eases Coupon Rules

Steamship Authority Governors Adopt New Ticket Book Policy, Encouraging Foot Passengers to Use Discounted Fares

By IAN FEIN

Steamship Authority discount ticket book holders will now be able to share their passenger coupons with friends and family members and use more than one ticket on a single ferry trip, according to new regulations adopted by the boat line this week. Both practices were previously disallowed.

The changes came with a unanimous vote at the monthly meeting of the Steamship Authority board of governors on Tuesday morning in Woods Hole, where board members finished their business in just over an hour.

New Bedford representative David J. Oliveira took over as chairman of the governing board this week, marking the first time in roughly half a century that someone from the Whaling City has held that position. New Bedford was dropped as a Steamship Authority port in 1960, but the state legislature in 2002 reinstated its position with the boat line and expanded the board of governors from three to five members by adding voting seats for Barnstable and New Bedford.

By statute, the chairmanship of the board rotates among towns every year, making 2007 the first with New Bedford at the helm.

Mr. Oliveira opened the meeting on Tuesday with a moment of silence for former Steamship Authority chief executive officer Fred Raskin, who died last month. Mr. Raskin, 58, headed the boat line for two years before resigning in 2004, and helped arrange high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

"[Mr. Raskin] was very important to me, and my home port of New Bedford," Mr. Oliveira said.

Steamship Authority director of engineering and maintenance Carl R. Walker on Tuesday provided the board meeting with an update on capital projects, including the Island Home, the highly anticipated new vessel for the Vineyard route. Mr. Walker said the vessel is set to begin sea trials off the Gulf Coast today, and that he expects it to arrive in Massachusetts around the first week of February.

The timeline was delayed slightly by the need to fix some minor issues with the engine controls. Mr. Walker assured that the delay was typical, and not a cause for concern.

"These things happen when you're trying to start up a new plant," said Mr. Walker, who flew to Mississippi with other SSA employees on Wednesday to accompany the vessel on its sea trials. "Obviously the boat won't be coming north until I'm happy."

Mr. Walker said boat line captains have also been conducting sea trials with the new Nantucket high-speed ferry Iyanough, which is expected to officially begin the Hyannis-Nantucket run at the end of March. He said the new ferry will be a welcome replacement for the Flying Cloud, which was plagued with costly mechanical failures during its short tenure with the boat line.

"I think [Iyanough] is a beautiful boat and it's going to work well for us," Mr. Walker said.

Policy changes for the coupon books sparked the most discussion on Tuesday, as the governing board steps up efforts to increase their popularity and use. The discount tickets save administrative costs for the boat line, and also provide immediate up-front funds.

Prior to this week, the passenger coupons were non-transferrable, meaning only one ticket could be used from the book per trip. A husband and wife traveling together, for example, would be required to have separate books in order to take advantage of the discount fares. SSA senior managers acknowledged that the regulations were both inconvenient and difficult to enforce.

Board members approved a minor price increase to accompany the relaxed policies, bringing the cost of a 10-ride book for the Vineyard route from the current $52 to $55. The coupons, which do not include a 50-cent embarkation fee, are still far cheaper than basic passenger tickets - at $5.50 per trip, instead of $7.

Nantucket boat line governor H. Flint Ranney on Tuesday wanted to go one step further and eliminate expiration dates on the coupons, which currently expire within one year on the Vineyard and two years on Nantucket. Mr. Ranney noted that Hy-Line Cruises and Nantucket Airlines do not impose expiration dates on their coupon books.

"To keep up with the competition, I think we have to do it. And we also have to market them better," Mr. Ranney said. "I don't think a lot of people know about it."

While less than 12,000 discount tickets were used on Nantucket vessels in the 12-month period ending Aug. 31, almost 200,000 coupons were collected on the Vineyard route during that same period - representing roughly ten per cent of total passenger traffic.

Falmouth boat line governor Robert Marshall said he supported increasing the expiration time period, but he opposed abandoning the expiration date altogether. He warned that savvy travelers could purchase multiple books to hedge against future rate increases.

In the end, board members agreed to adopt the recommended policy changes immediately, and to revisit the expiration date at their next meeting.

The board will also hear a year-end financial report at its next meeting. Steamship Authority officials this week said they expect to finish in the black for 2006, but will not know for certain until after all of the December books have been closed. Net operating income through November stood at $8.8 million, some $1.25 million higher than projected for the first 11 months.

In other business, boat line governors awarded a $486,000 contract to a Boston firm that will install an automated parking system integrating the various Steamship Authority lots. Some improved features of the new system will include the ability to take credit cards for payment, the installation of intercoms at each lane for assistance and convenient access controls for permit holders.

One of five companies to bid on the contract, McGann Associates Inc. of Boston came in with the best offer. Steamship Authority officials said they expected the system to save the boat line approximately $100,000 a year in cashier salaries that will no longer be needed.

Boat line general manager Wayne Lamson said the new parking system will also allow for growth and expansion in the future, perhaps by installing automated pay machines on the ferries or by creating a parking reservation system on the Steamship Authority Web site.

The board of governors appeared pleased.

"This is a terrific start to a process that we should be very aggressive about," Mr. Marshall said. "This more sophisticated system will offer more cost-savings, which will result in lower rates for our traveling customers."