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Steamship Authority, On The Brink Of Shuttering, Requests Aid From State

Passengers with cars and bicycles prepare to board a ferry departing the island of Martha's Vineyard, in Oak Bluffs, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)
Passengers with cars and bicycles prepare to board a ferry departing the island of Martha's Vineyard, in Oak Bluffs, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)
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Ferries between the islands of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and other parts of Cape Cod could cease operation on May 31 without quick financial relief, according to the Steamship Authority.

In a letter penned to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Robert Davis, the general manager for the Steamship Authority, asked for urgent financial aid and said the Authority was experiencing estimated revenue losses of $1 million per week due to the coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

"For the past month or so, we've seen a dramatic decrease in ridership," Davis told WBUR. "For the first couple weeks of April here, for instance, we're carrying about 15% of the passengers that we typically would be in the month of April."

This drastic decline in passengers has led the Authority to eliminate over 1,400 scheduled sailings through May 5, about 52% of the trips budgeted for that time frame. Davis also said the Authority is carrying about 20% of the automobiles and 35% of the trucks that they would normally be seeing at this time.

"That's had a significant impact on our operating revenues, as you might imagine," he said. "And as you know, our operation is 100% dependent upon our fare box [collections]. So it's having a dramatic impact on our bottom line."

The Steamship Authority is only allowed to maintain enough cash to cover maintenance, repair and operation for the current month and the following month, per its founding statute. It is also prohibited it from using any of its other revenue sources for operation costs.

Because of this, Davis wrote in the letter to Baker, the Authority has furloughed 114 of its employees — or 22% of its workforce — and has suspended its seasonal hiring, which usually takes place in April.

"As our operations continue, our limited cash reserves have been spent on fuel, maintenance and wages, but we have also laid up several unneeded vessels, closed or reduced support facilities and laid off numerous, valuable employees," Davis wrote.

“The Authority is the ‘lifeline’ for those islands, providing the only year-round passenger, automobile and truck ferry service delivering food, medicine, fuel and numerous other consumables and products from the mainland."

Robert Davis, general manager of the Steamship Authority

Davis said the Authority is eligible to receive some money through the CARES Act, but the amount it is slated to receive would only cover a portion of its operating costs.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation said that they have been in communication with the Authority.

"MassDOT has been in communication with the Authority, and the administration is reviewing this request," said Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokesperson for the department. Davis wrote that the Steamship Authority needs extra funding as soon as possible, and cannot wait until the end of the year to present the "millions of dollars in shortfalls to the Commonwealth" and seek its assistance then.

“The Authority is the ‘lifeline’ for those islands," Davis wrote to Baker, "providing the only year-round passenger, automobile and truck ferry service delivering food, medicine, fuel and numerous other consumables and products from the mainland."

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