I’m not trying to pile on the Coronavirus this morning. I want to look ahead to better times.
We’ve sprung forward. Last week we began to head into what is truly for me the best season of the year. If we’re lucky we’ll make it to the official start of spring this Thursday, March 19, hopefully closing out one of the warmest Boston winters on record. I’m still cautious — I know better to than to believe that all the bad weather — read snow — is over. I’ll never recover from the shock of the April Fools blizzard 23 years ago — 25 inches of snow on April 1!
I’m excited to see the usual local harbingers of spring — the Red Sox equipment truck leaving for Florida spring training, Sullivan’s Castle Island open for business and the Steamship Authority getting ready to welcome a hundred thousand or more ferry riders. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. From what I can see, the Steamship Authority is definitely not ready for the season. Customers are drowning in mishaps and mess-ups.
This is personal. The Steamship Authority is at the hub of my summer life. I’ve been a regular customer for years, boarding hundreds of SSA ferries most of which ran frequently and on time. My fond memories even include a few heart-pounding frantic sprints onto the boat moments before the SSA employees pull up the ramp. There have only been one or two cancellations in my many years of traveling — once because of rough currents and another time when a hurricane forced a shutdown. But, last summer the Steamship Authority’s formerly reliable reputation sank after a series of seemingly never-ending mechanical failures and other malfunctions. One ferry broke down after an $18 million refurbishment. Passengers were often stuck for hours in the middle of the water on stalled ferries.
Somehow, I managed to miss all the boats with the problems, though I was always anxious that my luck would run out. Many complain that the Steamship Authority has long been unresponsive to issues about service and equipment breakdowns. External pressure forced the Authority to hire consultants in June 2018 to conduct an independent review of its operations. The consultants’ final report, issued last December, noted SSA’s continuing effort to fix the myriad problems. Pointing to the Authority’s using an outside firm to upgrade the website’s maximum user capacity and to “continue testing to its breaking point.”
Fast forward to January, the very first day the website opened for summer car reservations. The system crashed early morning and remained disabled until late in the day. My friends who kindly host me every year were some of the more than 139 thousand who tried to get through — hour after frustrating hour. It’s true the crush of calls was a huge jump from opening day in 2019 when the SSA fielded 17 thousand online reservation requests. It’s also true that the mobile phone website, where most requests came in, was NOT upgraded. This disaster coupled with the ferry breakdowns and a big controversy about the new terminal’s design blocking the view of Woods Hole, led to calls for a complete overhaul of the authority because the Steamship Authority’s disruptions and failures are much more than an inconvenience for we summer visitors.
SSA is an essential service to island residents and an economic driver for the local economy. It has to work and work well. Jim Malkin, the newly elected Island representative to the Steamship Authority Board, spoke bluntly about what’s at stake for the organization and for him saying, “I know I have a very big target on my back and on my front.”
I believe I speak for all Steamship Authority customers when I say, talk is cheap. Show me.