A Cape Cod state senator has filed legislation seeking to alter the weighted vote structure on the five-member Steamship Authority board that gives Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket control over the boat line that is their lifeline.
The proposed bill, filed by Sen. Susan Moran as senate bill No. 2361 as “an act relative to municipal equity on Steamship Authority operations,” bubbled up at a marathon, three-hour SSA board meeting Tuesday morning amid broader discussion about long-term planning initiatives, and indicating a renewed tug of war between the mainland and Island port communities as demand for travel to the two Islands continues to grow.
When the 1960 SSA enabling legislation was last amended in 2002, expanding the board of governors from three to five voting members, it was intentionally structured to give the Vineyard and Nantucket each a 35 per cent weighted vote. The three other port towns — Barnstable, Falmouth and New Bedford — each have a 10 per cent vote.
The core mission of the SSA is to provide dependable year-round ferry service to the two Islands. The ferry line operates with no state or federal subsidy and depends on summer fares to stay financially afloat in the winter months.
A Falmouth resident and former Falmouth selectman, Senator Moran’s district includes the towns of Kingston, Pembroke, Plymouth, Bourne, Falmouth and Sandwich. The bill was filed in the senate and referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation on March 29. The language change would require a mainland town to join the Vineyard and Nantucket to form a voting majority.
SSA special counsel Steven Sayers explained the amendment at the meeting Tuesday.
“Senator Moran has proposed legislation that would provide on this board the mainland communities an effective veto over any actions taken by the authority, if none of them votes for any action,” Mr. Sayers said. “The Islands would no longer have majority control of the vote.”
Senator Moran was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
According to Mr. Sayers, she is slated to discuss the proposed amendment Thursday at a meeting of the Falmouth transportation management committee, which was formed to address concerns about traffic in and around Woods Hole.
Boader discussion at Tuesday’s meeting included a rehash of various subcommittee meetings from port towns and renewed discussion about establishing a port in New Bedford for freight and expanded passenger service to the Vineyard.
Falmouth residents have consistently sounded off on early morning freight ferries to the Vineyard, and railed against the SSA’s plans for an expanded shoreside ticket office complex at the Woods Hole terminal.
On Tuesday, Barnstable governor Robert Jones said altering the board’s voting structure was the wrong way to address Falmouth’s concerns, and would lead to further division between the port communities.
“Legislation like that only serves to tear us apart,” Mr. Jones said. “I’m frustrated with this . . . to change the vote, that’s just not going to serve any good purpose, except perhaps to alienate neighbors.”
He added that pleasing Woods Hole residents has proven a challenge, and that New Bedford presented a “huge question.”
But Falmouth governor Kathryn Wilson said it was important to discuss the transportation issues facing Woods Hole, especially as demand for Vineyard service continues to accelerate, and the two bridges to Cape Cod both face needed, long-haul repairs. She pressed the question of exploring New Bedford as an alternate port.
“I think the time is right to try and get out in front of this,” Ms. Wilson said. “Our regional transportation snarl is right smack on the horizon. And then, if I was on the Vineyard, I’d want some redundancy, I’d want some backup.”
Ms. Wilson said she did not know enough about Senator Moran’s amendment to give an opinion.
New Bedford governor Moira Tierney said that while the Whaling City is interested in principle in an SSA port — and that she believed it would become necessary at some point in the future — significant infrastructure and economic obstacles remain.
Vineyard governor James Malkin and Nantucket governor Rob Ranney pushed back on all fronts.
Mr. Ranney said diverting SSA ferries to New Bedford would have a litany of consequences for the Vineyard, including longer trips and more expensive fares. And Mr. Malkin said the effort to alleviate traffic concerns in Woods Hole should be driven by the board or an independent third party, rather than a Falmouth-based task force.
“It seems to me that most of this activity is being driven by the concerns of our friends in Woods Hole, dealing with traffic,” Mr. Malkin said. “If you form a group to deal with that squeaky wheel . . . you’re forming a group to deal with concerns you’ve already prejudiced.”
But Ms. Wilson, who has fought without success to eliminate the 5:30 a.m. freight ferry from Woods Hole to the Vineyard, said the current situation is untenable.
“I think the status quo is not the way to continue on,” she said. “It is not satisfactory.”