SSA: Vineyard Haven Harbor doesn’t need dredging

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Despite having the MV Woods Hole run aground a year ago, the Steamship Authority is questioning whether Vineyard Haven Harbor needs to be dredged. — George Brennan

Posted April 10, 2019

Tisbury selectmen say ferry service causes shoaling in the harbor, but SSA says last survey didn’t show a need to dredge.

Tisbury and the Steamship Authority appear to be on a collision course about dredging Vineyard Harbor.

At the April 2 Tisbury board of selectmen meeting, chairman Tristan Israel relayed a conversation he had on the ferry with harbormaster John Crocker. He said Crocker told him the SSA told him that the harbor would not be dredged because the SSA “lost money.”

“I found that very distressing,” Israel said. He said the town should strenuously object to the Steamship Authority’s stance on dredging: “They should be helping us with dredging of the harbor.”

Israel said he found the statement about losing money ironic, given all the construction in Woods Hole on a new terminal.

The board voted unanimously to draft a letter to the SSA asking for help with dredging the area surrounding the slips in Vineyard Haven Harbor.

It took a few days, but SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll responded to a request for comment, saying the Steamship Authority is in the process of setting up a meeting with Tisbury officials.

“There have been no formal discussions between the authority and any town officials about dredging Vineyard Haven Harbor, nor have we been presented with any survey data showing shoaling in the harbor that may or may not be attributable to our vessels,” Driscoll wrote in an email. “However, we are in the process of scheduling a meeting with the town to discuss the matter in further detail. We did conduct a bathymetric survey of the area surrounding our docks last year, however, that showed no shoaling; we plan to repeat that survey this year, and will gladly share the results with the town.”

Crocker was stunned by that assessment. “How is that possible?” he said. He noted that in March 2018, the MV Woods Hole lost propulsion as it turned around to dock at the slip and ran aground. Asked if the harbor needs dredging, Crocker never hesitated. “There’s no question about it. The Woods Hole ran aground. That’s a clue.”

Crocker confirmed that Israel quoted him accurately. He said his discussion was with Mark Rozum, the SSA’s operations manager.

Driscoll’s next statement in his email is likely to get significant pushback when town and SSA do meet.

“Additionally, I will note that the Town of Tisbury receives approximately $250,000 a year in embarkation fees, and that situations such as these are ones that the state embarkation fee statute was designed to address,” Driscoll wrote. “The embarkation fee statute specifically states ‘[a]ny city or town which receives monies from this section shall deposit them in a special fund, to be solely appropriated for the purpose of mitigating the impacts of ferry service on the city or town. Monies deposited may be appropriated for services including, but not limited to, providing harbor services, public safety protection, emergency services, or infrastructure improvements within and around the harbor of any city or town which receives monies from this section.’” Embarkation money comes from a 50 cent surcharge on passenger tickets.

The town already does set money aside for dredging, and on Tuesday, town meeting voters will decide whether to set aside $100,000 in the coming fiscal year for dredging. Other portions of the funds go toward things like paying for officers to direct traffic coming and going from the SSA terminal.

In a follow-up interview, Israel was upset with that response from the SSA. “It’s not up to them how we spend our embarkation funding,” he said, noting that this has been an issue periodically through the years. While the original legislation was rigid, the final wording allows the town to spend those funds on things it can link back to the harbor. “We spend $55,000 per year for patrolmen to watch the traffic leaving the SSA. That benefits the SSA,” Israel said.

Both Israel and Crocker said there is precedent for the SSA to pay for dredging the harbor. Crocker estimated that five years ago, the SSA dredged the north side of its slip area because it had become so shallow. “We have a difference of opinion,” Crocker said. “We’ll let the selectmen and the town administrator talk about that with the SSA.”