Starting Jan. 1, the Vineyard will be a little less connected to the mainland, the result of a decision by the operators of the New Bedford fast ferry to sharply cut their off-season service.
Not that many people are likely to mind; the reason the service is being reduced is that hardly anybody rides it.
Indeed, the service cuts, from three weekday round trips to two, with none at all on weekends, may only be the first step. The operators, New England Fast Ferry, have flagged the prospect of abandoning all service between mid-October and mid-April.
The initial cuts were approved by Steamship Authority governors, who license the ferry service, at their monthly meeting Tuesday morning in Woods Hole.
In a letter in early November to the SSA, New England Fast Ferry vice chairman and chief financial officer Andrew P. Langlois said that when the company entered into its license agreement with the SSA in 2003, it was “with the expectation that the public in southeastern Massachusetts and on the Island desired to have this service during the winter season, and that the service would represent an additional lifeline to the Island.”
However, in the three winters since, there had been no meaningful demand, Mr. Langlois said. The only regular users are 10 to 15 construction workers who commute from the mainland on weekdays.
Even in the best of the three years of operation, 2005-2006, the ferry carried a total of only 18,645 passengers. In 2006-2007, coincidental with the sharp slowdown of building activity on the Island, passenger numbers were down to 13,763, a reduction of 26 per cent.
The ferry operators attached numbers to their submission, showing average daily revenue was $1,645 from 76 passengers, which barely covered the $1,500 cost of fuel. When crew costs were factored in, the run lost $455 a day.
While the SSA governors readily agreed to the service cuts initially proposed, things may become more complicated if the high-speed ferry goes forward with its proposal to completely abandon the route in winter.
The high-speed ferry operation was licensed by the SSA in 2003 for seven years on the basis that it would provide year-round service. The license agreement required New England Fast Ferry to operate a minimum of two round trips a day, seven days a week through the off-season.
“They have put us on notice that next year there might not be any service, but they felt they should give people some advance notice before potentially pulling out altogether in the fall of 2008,” said the SSA general manager Wayne Lamson, shortly after the letter was received last month.
He said boat line governors will not address the request to abandon the winter high-speed ferry service until after the end of the current off-season.
At Tuesday’s meeting boat line governors also heard a report on reservation opening dates for 2008.
The head start program, under which Islanders can make up to five reservations before the general opening of bookings will begin on Jan. 3, 11 days before the general mail and online bookings, and 18 days before the opening of phone bookings.
The board also enlisted the assistance of Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington, who attended the meeting, to try to speed a state government dredging program vital to the operation of the boat line’s Fairhaven docking and maintenance facility.
The facility provides safe haven for boats in case of hurricanes and storms as well as maintenance work.
The Seaport Advisory Council has yet to approve funding for all the dredging. Continued delay would limit maintenance and mean boats could not shelter there during next hurricane season.
The governors also approved a $3.3 million capital budget and reshuffled their own positions for the coming year. Nantucket governor Flint Ranney will take over as chairman and Vineyard governor Marc Hanover will become secretary.