Developing an alternate port to ship freight by ferry to Martha’s Vineyard is feasible, but major obstacles including cost, travel distance and lack of infrastructure make locations other than Woods Hole problematic, a new report commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation concludes.

The 68-page report prepared by Urban Harbors Institute and released this week by the Steamship Authority concluded that State Pier in New Bedford would be the most practical choice among several alternatives examined for a new freight port. But significant investment in infrastructure would be needed to make that possible, and leaders in the Whaling City appear more focused on tourism-related waterfront redevelopment projects, the authors found.

“The mainland off-cape port in Massachusetts that is best positioned to handle non-bulk freight is New Bedford; however, shipping non-bulk freight to the Islands is not a priority use of the waterfront for the city,” the report said. “Other ports may be too far from the Islands to make short-sea shipping financially viable.”

Moreover, the report found, shifting even half the freight currently carried from Woods Hole to New Bedford would result in an overall increase in nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide emissions without significantly improving traffic congestion in Falmouth.

Instead, the authors suggest three possible steps to reduce traffic and emissions: consolidating freight in trucks before they reach the Cape, reducing the amount of waste coming from the Islands and doing more short-sea shipping from locations outside of Massachusetts.

The report, dated Sept. 2021 and funded by the state using federal highway funds, is the latest in a series of studies conducted over the last two decades to evaluate the potential of shifting freight traffic away from Woods Hole, where longstanding complaints from residents about noise and truck traffic have grown more insistent in recent years.

The report looked at New Bedford/Fairhaven, Fall River, Somerset and Wareham before concluding that New Bedford offered the best potential as an alternate port, though not without drawbacks.

Studies conducted in 2000, 2012 and 2016 by the Steamship Authority all came to the same basic conclusion: despite its apparent attractions, a New Bedford to Martha’s Vineyard route is cost prohibitive. A key reason is the travel time. Although New Bedford is relatively close to the Island, treacherous currents in the Woods Hole channel require boats to navigate through Quick’s Hole, adding another 30 minutes to a two-hour trip.

In the latest evaluation, Urban Harbors analyzed the existing freight transported by the Steamship Authority. Between 2018 and 2020, the annual number of freight trucks traveling between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard declined slightly from 53,449 in 2018 to 53,366 in 2019 to 47,999 in 2020.

Focusing on 2019 numbers to avoid the impact of the pandemic, the report estimated that 40 per cent of those trucks traveled through New Bedford on their way to or from the Vineyard.

Assuming all of those trucks passed over either the Bourne or Sagamore bridges, traveled on Route 28 and down the Woods Hole road, the report concluded that trucks travelling on ferries accounted for 0.14 per cent of all bridge traffic, 0.7 per cent of all Route 128 traffic and 1.84 per cent of all Woods Hole road traffic.

“Though freight trucks are a very small per cent of overall traffic on Falmouth roadways, community members in Falmouth have voiced concern over the impact that freight activity to and from Martha’s Vineyard has on the local roadways and community character,” the report found.

“If efforts were made to reduce volume and/or congestion through the removal of freight trucks from local roadways, it would be important to ensure that cars and smaller trucks seeking to travel by ferry would not take the place of the rerouted freight trucks and reduce any benefits associated with the decrease in truck numbers,” the report continued.

The report also looked at greenhouse gas emissions from trucks and vessels between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard and compared them to a model of what would be produced if less than half of the freight trucks diverted to New Bedford. While the amount of nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide emissions from trucks alone would decrease, the overall emissions from trucks and vessels would be 20 per cent higher than under the current scenario, the report said. The report found that about 38 per cent of the freight carried on trucks between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard is comprised of mail, express packages, food and fuel, 17 per cent is building materials and 13 per cent is waste and recyclables generated on the Island and shipped off.

“The demand for freight on the Island is largely fixed, barring some significant change in activities on Island (e.g., major development projects).  Further, the Steamship Authority currently has capacity to transport additional freight. Given these factors, it does not seem that there is unmet demand for freight shipping,” the report said. “If freight were to be shipped from a non-Cape site, however, it is possible that the newly freed capacity could result in changes in schedules, an increase in the number of passenger cars transported, or some other modification to current practices,” it said.