About 100 people attended a meeting Monday, September 9, at Falmouth High School to discuss the Steamship Authority’s schedule for next year, many of whom were critical of an early morning boat.
At issue was the 5:30 AM freight ferry out of the Woods Hole terminal. The meeting, which began with problems with the microphones, lasted nearly two hours and was at times heated and contentious.
It was held in response to a petition Nathaniel S. Trumbull of Woods Hole submitted last month to Steamship Authority general manager Robert B. Davis, with signatures from 50 Falmouth residents.
“We object to the scheduling of freight from Woods Hole prior to 6 AM due to the sleep deprivation caused by the early morning noise impact of Steamship Authority-related freight trucks on Falmouth and Woods Hole residents,” Mr. Trumbull wrote.
The proposed 2020 summer schedule would operate from May 15 through October 20, ending three days earlier than in 2019.
“It essentially would be the same summer schedule as we are running this year and also ran last year. We are again proposing to run the 5:30 AM freight trip from Woods Hole with the M/V Governor in that time period,” said Steamship Authority general counsel Steven M. Sayers, who moderated the hearing.
The 5:30 AM trip has run since 2012, but only during the summer months since 2017.
The hearing had more than 20 commenters from Falmouth and Martha’s Vineyard. Their various concerns included safeguarding the supply chain of food, fuel and other goods to island residents and businesses; addressing traffic and noise complaints due to braking trucks on Woods Hole Road; and diversifying the routes for transporting freight to Martha’s Vineyard via New Bedford.
The Steamship Authority made no decisions during the hearing and would take all written and spoken testimony under advisement. Based on public feedback, authority staff will draft a report recommending that the authority maintain its proposed schedules or make modifications to them. The authority’s board of governors and port council will review the draft report during their meetings next month, Mr. Sayers said.
Kathryn Wilson is Falmouth’s representative to the board, and Robert S.C. Munier is Falmouth’s representative to the port council.
Mr. Sayers said that the authority has requested that freight shippers participate in its bulk freight reservation program to request reservations on the 5:30 AM freight trip from Woods Hole and that their truck drivers not exceed the speed limit on any road in Falmouth or 35 miles per hour, whichever is lower, to reduce noise.
“We’re not allowing trucks to arrive at the terminal earlier than necessary to be processed and loaded onto ferries,” Mr. Sayers said, adding that a new operational procedure last year limited the size of the trucks that can travel on the ferries.
The authority must also consider the safety of passengers when transporting hazardous materials such as propane and gasoline to the island, he said.
The first five commenters, all owners or employees of companies that service Martha’s Vineyard, said they supported the proposed schedule.
“Without the early boat, I would have a really hard time to continue to do my job servicing Martha’s Vineyard, the hospitals and the schools,” said Peter Francis, who works for a food service company that uses the 5:30 AM boat each day, with as many as 16 trucks a week during the summer.
Brian Hughes, who works for a fuel provider, said his company sends about three trucks a day to fuel gas stations on the island.
“The reason we go over early is for as little disruption on the island as possible. The streets on Martha’s Vineyard are not made for our 53-foot trucks. Those local communities need the services we provide. The earlier we can get in and out, the safer it will be for the people who live there,” he said.
John W. Leite III, manager of JWL Transport in Oak Bluffs, said his company has been traveling on the ferries since 1953 and called the early boat a “necessary evil.”
“We have the same issue with trucks on the Vineyard. People just know that we need that to be able to survive over there as a community,” he said. “As badly as I feel for you all, I think there’s things that could be done perhaps you haven’t thought of yet or maybe you don’t want to do, and maybe it’s easier to ask the Steamship Authority to make concessions, but it would be a real hardship for us, financially and otherwise, if we were to lose those trips. In my opinion, I don’t think we have enough trips as it is. I think we could use a few more.”
Woods Hole residents Albert and Margaret Fitzelle spoke next, with Mr. Fitzelle calling the discussion between the authority and the Town of Falmouth “malarkey, insincere or foolish talk.”
The Steamship Authority has ignored the Falmouth Board of Selectmen’s criticism of the early boats, he said, adding that the authority’s board has “failed to plan properly for the future” because of the dangers of “jamming this much traffic down a two-lane road.”
Ms. Fitzelle called the number of fuel trucks on Woods Hole Road “a potential tragedy” and asked that the authority consider New Bedford as an alternative port.
James J. Rogers, a Tisbury selectman, said that, while he sympathized with Woods Hole residents, he did not see shipping freight from New Bedford as a reliable or profitable option.
“New Bedford is not even close to being reasonable. Buzzards Bay is pretty treacherous, and we would have more canceled trips if we went to New Bedford. It was tried for many years, and it didn’t work. You can wish that all you want,” he said, noting that Falmouth would lose jobs if the Authority moved shipping to New Bedford.
Mr. Rogers also referred to the state’s enabling act that requires the authority to provide services to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
“Don’t forget that the Steamship Authority is responsible to make ends meet. If not, then the member towns, including Falmouth, are going to have to pick up that debt. If they go into debt from the service out of New Bedford, you’ll be paying for some of that as well,” he said.
Judith Laster, a member of the Woods Hole business and community associations, reminded the board that she had requested, at a public hearing on the Woods Hole terminal in June, that the authority develop a strategic plan with a community impact statement to guide its decision-making.
“We in Woods Hole are not against truck drivers, we’re not against the people on Martha’s Vineyard, but we also don’t have to suck it up and take it. We live there, we also work there, and there has to be a way to come to a solution that is reasonable and that takes into account community impact.”
She suggested that the authority meet with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Falmouth selectmen “to look at overall traffic in a normal planning fashion.”
Becky Connors, manager of the Sands of Time Motor Inn & Harbor House on Woods Hole Road, said the trucks’ noise affects both her family life and her business.
“I’ve received complaints from customers about the noise, and I have to run air conditioners to block the downshifting of trucks on Woods Hole Road,” she said.
Woods Hole resident Daniel Smith said that Falmouth residents are expected to facilitate the increased traffic when “Martha’s Vineyard derives all the benefit and Woods Hole derives all the hardship.”
Mr. Trumbull, who organized the petition, said he is concerned about what he called a 4 percent annual growth in freight traffic between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven.
He read the statement of an unidentified guest, an autonomous alternative supplier who might help diversify freight routes through New Bedford.
Mr. Sayers said the authority’s management and board would be open to talking about other proposals.
Rounding out the comments were statements from two Martha’s Vineyard Public officials—Tisbury selectman Jeffrey Kristal and Dukes County commissioner Leon A. Brathwaite—both of whom opposed changes to the proposed schedule and said the 5:30 AM boats are critical for island residents and businesses.