Steamship Authority Is 'Penny Pinching' And Under-Staffed, Report Finds

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Passengers with cars and bicycles prepare to board a ferry departing the island of Martha's Vineyard, in Oak Bluffs on Aug. 26, 2011. (Steven Senne/AP)
Passengers with cars and bicycles prepare to board a ferry departing the island of Martha's Vineyard, in Oak Bluffs on Aug. 26, 2011. (Steven Senne/AP)

The organization that operates the ferries that serve as a lifeline between the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket and the Massachusetts mainland suffers from under-staffing, a lack of professional accountability and a “penny pinching” management that contributed to a series of incidents early in 2018 that could have been prevented with greater foresight.

That’s according to a new report, commissioned in June by the organization, to find the root causes of hundreds of ferry cancellations that plagued the Steamship Authority (SSA) in the spring.

"The lack of a clear and aspirational vision at the SSA has led to competing factions within the organization,” the report says. "This appears in regular interactions between various departments and individuals, resulting in different factions undermining and working against each other at the expense of the organization’s performance."

From the beginning of the year through mid-May, the authority had cancelled more than 500 ferries from Wood's Hole to Martha's Vineyard — compared with just 26 cancellations all of 2017.

The top-to-bottom audit, by the firms HMS Consulting, Glosten and Rigor Analytics, looks at the causes of three blackouts, a grounding of a ferry and multiple IT system outages.

The SSA is praised in the report for operating a financially self-sustaining operation that does not rely on annual government subsidies — distinguishing the SSA from many of its peers.

But the authority’s resulting frugality and over-emphasis on cost reductions, the report says, “hinders its ability to implement best practices and function properly.”

The report also faults SSA management for failing to establish appropriate training protocols and safety procedures. For example, regarding a March 17 blackout on the M/V Martha’s Vineyard, the report identifies 21 individual issues with the operation of the vessel.

"While the blackout did not result in any serious casualties, had it occurred minutes later, while the vessel was maneuvering into the dock, the consequences could have been dire,” the report says.

“Our dedication to fiscal responsibility has been a source of pride for our employees, but being prudent with our dollars has not led to a lack of resources for the crucial areas of maintenance and training,” SSA General Manager Robert Davis responded in a statement.

The SSA declined to comment further, in advance of a public meeting on the report at Falmouth High School, at 3:45 p.m. Monday.

The report says while the broader maritime industry has evolved significantly in recent decades, "evidence suggests that the SSA has not.”

The report proposes 10 recommendations for reform at the SSA — ranging from a new mission statement to a change in the authority's organizational structure. The firms say the changes would require an initial cost of roughly $1 million, and another $1 million annually.

In a memo to staff, Davis noted that the authority “has a great deal of work to do, but we have already made significant progress on a number of areas identified in the report.”

Some of the areas Davis highlight include the development of a smartphone app and the hiring of a communications director.

This segment aired on December 18, 2018.

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Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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