Boat Line Reports Summer Traffic Is Up

By MIKE SECCOMBE

If the traffic on Vineyard roads seems worse this summer and the straggling crowds more numerous, it's not an illusion. The most recent figures on ferry traffic prove it.

Numbers released by the Steamship Authority this week show more than 230,000 passengers and almost 40,000 cars were carried for the month of June alone, a six per cent increase in people and almost three per cent increase in cars compared with last June.

But even those figures understate the traffic congestion, because the full-fare-paying car traffic - read tourists - was up 6.5 per cent.

Excursion fare traffic - that's Islanders - was down almost five per cent.

Preliminary figures for July show smaller but still healthy increases over last year: 1.1 per cent for passengers and a 2.3 per cent increase in full-fare car traffic on boat line ferries.

At Tuesday's meeting of the Steamship Authority governors' general manager Wayne Lamson reported net operating income for the month of $3.26 million, or more than $500,000 above budget projections for the month.

"Most of that improvement in our bottom line in June, like the previous month, was attributable to higher than expected increases in the number of passengers and automobiles carried," Mr. Lamson said.

The boat line's net operating loss for the year at the end of June was just under $2.68 million, or about half what was projected in the budget, and preliminary figures indicate that the SSA will be in the black by the end of July.

Net operating income for the month is expected to be $5.4 million, and for the year some $27 million, about $2.8 million above budget projections.

If the ferry line figures provide a leading indicator for the health of the Island economy as a whole, the only negative aspect remains truck traffic - specifically light trucks of the kind driven by small contractors - which is still down compared with last year.

But there are signs even this measure of Island activity might be turning around. Year to date, truck traffic was down 7.9 per cent, but for June the shortfall dropped to 5.2 per cent, and for July 4.1 per cent.

Held on Nantucket, the August SSA board meeting was mostly upbeat.

Boat line governors quickly and with minimal discussion voted to award a contract for the mid-life refurbishment of the ferry Nantucket, at a cost of just over $5.9 million, to Colonna's Shipyard Incorporated of Norfolk, Va.

It is the first time the SSA has had dealings with the shipyard.

The meeting saw two minor disputes, one between the SSA and its auditors, Deloitte and Touche LLP, and one between board members.

The first dispute relates, ironically, to dispute resolution provisions auditors want to insert into their renewed contract with the boat line, which would limit their liability for damages in any future disagreement.

SSA chief counsel Steven Sayers told governors: "I find the dispute resolution provision they sent us to be a form one that one should not be sending long-term clients. It was an offensive provision."

Mr. Sayers said he had replied with an alternative provision, and said senior managers were otherwise happy with the work of the auditing firm. On the basis of their belief that the minor dispute could be worked out, governors voted to reappoint the audit company - but only if and when the problem has been settled to Mr. Lamson's satisfaction.

The other issue of some contention related to a proposed new five-year contract for catering services on SSA vessels and at its terminals.

New Bedford governor and board chairman David J. Oliveira said he wanted any request for proposals to include a provision for merchandising, as well as food.

The subject of merchandising, i.e., selling T-shirts or hats at a profit for the boat line, has surfaced repeatedly in recent years but has never taken effect. This week Falmouth governor Robert S. Marshall suggested including any provision relating to merchandising would be an unnecessary complication in negotiation for food services.

This provoked Mr. Oliveira, who complained that the boat line has made no progress on finding sources of revenue other than by raising rates.

"What we never seem to get here is merchandising," he said, adding:

"You know what? When we have the discussion about goals [for the general manager, also on the Tuesday meeting agenda] let's just strip that out, about finding alternative sources of income. It's such a waste of time. It's disingenuous to put it in there."

Nantucket governor H. Flint Ranney intervened and in the end a consensus of sorts was achieved: when a request for proposals goes out to potential bidders, it will include an optional provision for selling merchandise.