NANTUCKET CURRENT: THE STEAMSHIP POWER GRAB

Written By: Jason Graziadei

Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard enjoy a veto-proof voting bloc when it comes to the governance of the all-important transportation lifeline to the islands: the Steamship Authority. But that island control of the Steamship Authority Board is being challenged and could come to an end if new legislation proposed by Plymouth and Barnstable State Senator Susan Moran comes to pass.

“We were blindsided by this last week,” Rob Ranney, Nantucket’s representative on the Steamship Authority Board, told the Current this week.

First, a little background: The Steamship is governed by an appointed five-member board that includes one member from Nantucket, one from Martha’s Vineyard, as well as three other members from the mainland port communities of Falmouth, Barnstable and New Bedford. Each board member from the island is granted 35 percent of the members’ combined vote, while each board member from the mainland gets a 10 percent vote. While disputes are not common, the island representatives retain control over important issues with their weighted votes, even in the event they are outvoted by their counterparts on the mainland.

Senator Moran’s bill would bring that arrangement to an end by amending the Steamship’s enabling act to grant parity to the vote of each board member, a move that would give the mainland port communities the ability to veto or filibuster the islands on important issues.

“I’m very much opposed to the change to the enabling act,” Ranney said. “It would provide the mainland port communities with a veto power that they do not have now, and by so doing it would go against the heart of the enabling legislation which places control of the SSA with the islands. The SSA was set up to serve the islands. The islands are unique in the state in that they solely pay for their own transportation to and from the nearest town. There are no state highways that connect Nantucket to the rest of the state, no taxpayer money that funds the SSA, the ridership funds it, the users fund it. The SSA was set up that way on purpose. To now take control away by adding a veto power that currently does not exist could certainly create problems.”

Photo by Kit Noble

Ranney asserted that Sen. Moran’s proposal is being driven by an issue wholly unrelated to Nantucket: the traffic in Woods Hole and Falmouth, communities she represents, due to the volume of vehicles and trucks headed to and from Martha’s Vineyard. There is a push in Falmouth, Ranney said, that wants to move most, if not all, of the Vineyard’s freight service to New Bedford.

Nantucket’s representatives in Boston – State Senator Julian Cyr and State Representative Dylan Fernandes – have already issued a forceful statement opposing Sen. Moran’s legislation.

“This bill would allow one Steamship Authority member to control the fate of the lifeline to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while placing island communities in the precarious position to be responsible for future operating deficits,” Sen. Cyr and Rep. Fernandes said in a joint statement provided to the Current. “Islanders should chart the course when it comes to their lifeline to the mainland. We are open to a thoughtful and collaborative conversation about the Steamship Authority, but after hearing from our constituents, we have deeply held concerns about this approach and cannot support it. Fortunately, there is a long tradition of deferring to the lawmakers who represent the islands on such matters. Legislation affecting Islanders cannot advance without our support, and thus this bill will not pass.”

The legislation was discussed during the Steamship Authority Board meeting earlier this week, when SSA counsel Steven Sayers explained the ramifications of the bill and some board members indicated their dismay that it had been filed at all.

“Legislation like that only serves to tear us apart,” said SSA Board member Robert Jones, of Barnstable.

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