It was a bold move on the part of Steamship Authority senior staff on Tuesday evening. Facing time pressure to submit a final terminal plan for approval before its Woods Hole temporary ticket building’s variance expires in 2020, Steamship Authority senior staff proposed to its board to vote “to undertake revised schematic design phases for the new Woods Hole terminal building.”
But the details of the staff summary held the critical details. The vote would only authorize a limited number of minor changes to the building’s design. More fundamental points of contention with Falmouth residents, such as the building’s proposed footprint, two-story height, and orientation, were not to be changed going forward, the staff summary stated. The only quantifiable change would be to “shift the location of the building northward within that footprint by at least ten (10) feet.”
A long report accompanied the staff summary. Despite its length, the report contained little introspection as to what the Steamship Authority could do differently to address community concerns over the Woods Hole reconstruction project. The Steamship Authority has done everything it possibly could have done, suggested the report.
The report had other lapses. It failed to mention the citizens petition of over 1,200 signers. The petition website is at www.steamshipauthority.info. Dozens and dozens of petition signers had submitted individual and detailed comments with their signatures. The SSA had previously confirmed receipt of those comments. The report ignored them.
On Tuesday evening, speaker after speaker castigated the Authority for not reaching out to the community, for falling short on past promises, and for using the 1960 SSA Enabling Act’s statutory protection for the Authority effectively to ride roughshod over community concerns. Others pointed to the SSA’s failure to pursue more actively an off-Cape port for any form of additional freight route to the islands. One speaker pointed to the SSA’s track record of limiting competition to the islands in favor of the Steamship Authority’s own seemingly unfettered growth.
Many of the explanations presented by General Manager Bob Davis sounded like only part of the story. He explained that moving any of the employee functions from the proposed second floor of the new terminal building to an ancillary building on the site perimeter would cost an additional $3 million. But what about the potential savings of a more modest single-floor terminal-passenger-only building? That economy went unmentioned.
Martha’s Vineyard board member Marc Hanover, who controls 35 percent of the five-member board’s vote, announced at 7 PM that, “I won’t get home tonight if I don’t leave right now.” (Hello, there were still three evening ferries left.) Anticipating the loss of a quorum when the Nantucket member (also 35 percent of the board vote) left next, Davis moved suddenly to ask the board to vote on the staff’s originally proposed vote. The Enabling Act gives the Barnstable, Falmouth and New Bedford board members only 10 percent each of the board vote.
To the credit of the remaining board members, the board decided to table a vote. It was not the outcome the SSA staff had sought. The whole meeting encapsulated how the dated Enabling Act obstructs 21st century best practices for listening to community concerns, about how a competitive transportation network to the islands might develop, and how all the people of the Commonwealth could benefit.
Nathaniel S. Trumbull