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After hundreds of ferry cancellations this year alone, the Steamship Authority has announced it's planning to hire an outside firm to audit its entire operation.
The authority, which runs ferry service to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, detailed its plans at a meeting held on the Vineyard Tuesday night.
Mechanical problems have caused 549 cancellations this year alone on the line between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard. That compares to just 26 cancellations all of last year.
Walter Drolette runs an insulation company based in Bourne. He travels from the mainland to Martha’s Vineyard twice a week, to deliver supplies and oversee his workers.
In all the 35 years he’s been making the trip, Drolette says he’s never seen this kind of scheduling mess.
"We were doing a job last month and we couldn’t get guys over here, and then we couldn’t get guys off the island at the end of the day. So it was a nightmare," he said.
For people who depend on the ferry for work, that can translate into losses. Drolette says his workers punch in on the mainland, and only punch out when they return -- so every hour of delay is another hour of pay. He says that's cost his company about $1,000.
But unlike a lot of people on the Vineyard, Drolette said he still has faith in the Steamship Authority.
"I think it’s a fluke, I think that they probably are very concerned about how things are going," he said. "Because generally they do a great job. The people here are good people and they try to get you on a boat."
That sentiment is far from universal these days. As Drolette and a colleague were waiting in their work van for the ferry back to the mainland, roughly 200 Vineyard residents were making their way to the monthly board meeting of the Steamship Authority.
The meeting was originally scheduled to be held in Nantucket. But public pressure on the Vineyard drove the board to meet here instead, and face an angry public demanding a top-to-bottom audit of the agency.
Steamship Authority General Manager Robert Davis opened the meeting with an apology:
"I am the general manager, I am responsible for making sure that the services that you depend upon, the island residents, the local merchants, the commuters, the shippers and island visitors come to rely on every day, and it’s embarrassing that we are in this position and we weren’t able to do that."
The notion of the ferry as a lifeline came up countless times during Tuesday night's meeting.
"Three times forced to pay for hotel rooms and forced to leave my car three separate times in Palmer because I couldn’t get my car back on the boat and get the kids back to school and me back to work that next day. ... This is our lifeline, we need this fixed, so whatever you people have to do, you need to do it," said Jean Rogers of Vineyard Haven.
While some islanders seized the opportunity to vent about the inconveniences brought to their lives, others talked about the deeper significance of ferry service to the island economy.
"We have 700,000 gallons of fuel that we get every single year, the majority of that is during the season, that comes over in 88 trucks, and if those trucks aren't delivered then we can’t fly, and if we can’t fly, your impact becomes our impact," said Peter Wharton of Oak Bluffs, who is an airport commissioner.
A recent poll by the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette found that 65 percent of year-round Vineyard residents think service is worse now than it was a year ago. And 77 percent believe the Steamship Authority should be subjected to an independent audit. Many at the meeting were upset that the board had rejected an earlier proposal to do so.
But board members say they had to reject it, because it named one company to do the audit instead of putting it out to bid.
On Tuesday night the proposal was revamped and brought again by Marc Hanover, the Martha’s Vineyard representative on the board.
"I know what we need and I know what I want, and that is a complete review of the entire Steamship Authority, the operational discipline, the IT, the public communications, management structure and fleet maintenance," he said to applause.
This time, Hanover’s plan was to solicit proposals in an open process. Now the board was united.
Next it’ll be up to the Steamship Authority to request proposals for an audit — that could be approved at its next monthly meeting.
On a separate matter, board members said at Tuesday’s meeting they plan to hire a PR expert in the wake of the scheduling morass. With the tourist season starting to kick into gear, that move can’t come fast enough for island businesses for which the very idea of ferry cancellations can mean losses.
On Wednesday, Lisa Allen, general manager of the Pequot Hotel in Oak Bluffs, told WBUR that visitors need reassurance that there’s dependable ferry service.
Visitors “are afraid that once they get here they won’t be able to get off the island,” she said. “So say they have a Sunday departure, and maybe something to do on Monday, like work, they’re reluctant to… book a reservation.”
“If it’s unreliable then… people will choose to go to Nantucket [or] stay on Cape Cod.”
Allen says weather disruptions to ferry service can batter business as well.
“Last year, I think for one weekend there was about a $10,000 loss in revenue, just because of the thought that the boat may not be running,” she said. “So times that throughout the season… it has the potential of being huge.”
Asked if she thinks the Steamship Authority can act quick enough to stave off any losses, Allen said if the past is any indication of the future, she doesn’t have much hope.
This segment aired on May 16, 2018.
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