Saturday, August 4, 2018

Slow Saturday Special: Running Out of Steam

"Cancellations on Martha’s Vineyard ferry skyrocket" by Matt Rocheleau Globe Staff  May 11, 2018

Mechanical problems forced the Steamship Authority to cancel about 550 ferry trips between Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth in the first four months of this year, an unprecedented total about 15 times the yearly average and one that has officials scrambling as the summer travel season approaches.

“It’s insane. It’s absolutely insane,” said Marc N. Hanover, secretary of the authority’s five-member governing board and a longtime Martha’s Vineyard resident. “This is the worst anybody has ever seen it. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

The cancellation figures are detailed in a report the quasi-public agency completed as it faces sharp criticism from state lawmakers and island residents over a series of major boat breakdowns in recent weeks, including one vessel that was commissioned only two years ago and another that recently underwent a $17 million refurbishment.

SeeHere are the 19 Mass. quasipublic agencies that have failed to report spending records

As required by law.

The internal review, completed Monday and first reported by the Vineyard Gazette, acknowledged that the onslaught of disruptions, coupled with complaints about poor communication and customer service, have eroded public confidence in the agency.


Meanwhile, general manager Robert B. Davis chalked up the breakdowns to a series of unrelated mechanical failures on multiple boats, from busted propeller parts to loose wires to failed electrical breakers.

Through the end of April, 549 trips between Woods Hole in Falmouth and Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard were canceled because of mechanical issues. That includes some high-profile failures, such as on March 17 when one ferry lost power, stranding 72 passengers off the island for five hours. Not included in the tally are a few hundred cancellations that were blamed on weather.

Many of the mechanical problems occurred in March and April, the report notes. They have persisted in May, with the latest breakdown coming last Saturday.

By comparison, just 26 trips were canceled for mechanical reasons along that route all of last year. In 2016, there were only 22 such cancellations and in 2015, there were 79. In 2014, there were just 21.

The Steamship Authority was established by state lawmakers in 1960 to run ferry service to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Its boats are best known as a way to get to the islands during the economically all-important summer season that stretches roughly from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but for the 27,000 people who call Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket home, the agency’s service is “a lifeline” year round, said Hanover, 65, who has lived on the Vineyard for 43 years.

Islanders rely on Steamship vessels to get to the mainland for jobs, appointments, and other necessities. Though there are other passenger ferries run by separate companies, the Steamship boats carry vehicles and critical supplies such as food and fuel to the island.

“Everything we have here comes on the boats,” Hanover said.

In recent weeks, the outrage from residents has grown as the breakdowns have piled up with no real explanation. A Facebook group “Save Our Steamship Authority” was formed to “demand reform, transparency, and accountability” from the agency. As of Friday, the group had close to 700 members.

JB Blau, an administrator of the Facebook group and owner of five restaurants on the Vineyard, said he fears if the breakdowns persist “that could irreparably damage the island’s reputation for years.”

“Everyone on this island is spooked like they haven't been before,” said Blau.

Josh Goldstein, 39, who helps run the 48-room Mansion House hotel in Vineyard Haven with his family, said the poor ferry service this year has cut into revenue.

“Our numbers are certainly down,” he said. “And it’s not only us that lose money every time someone cancels a room.”

Fewer people on the island means fewer diners in restaurants and shoppers in stores. “It’s a waterfall effect,” he said.

In a letter to the authority this week, two state lawmakers who represent the islands, Senator Julian Cyr and Representative Dylan Fernandes, urged the agency to hire an outside consultant to conduct a “comprehensive review.”

“The Steamship Authority’s failure to solve problems with maintenance and operations, as well as its lack of transparent communication, has become a significant and ongoing concern,” they wrote.

In its report, the agency said it believes it can prevent future failures by making improvements that include hiring an outside consultant to review vessel maintenance practices, requiring staff to record more specific reasons for cancellations and delays, and bolstering efforts to communicate with the public in a timely manner.

“We want to make sure we’re providing a safe and reliable service,” Davis, the general manager, said in an interview. “We’re looking at what steps we can do to make sure that everything is operating properly,” but even as the new report offers possible solutions, there’s disagreement among board members about how to turn things around.

Hanover said he doesn’t believe the improvement plan laid out in the agency’s report goes far enough. “I believe the management and staff have done their best, but it isn’t working,” he said. “They are so busy putting out fires, I don’t think they have the time to get done what needs to be done.”

Hanover said it’s time for the agency to bring in outside help to fix the problems and has proposed hiring consultant McKinsey & Co. at a cost of about $500,000, but when Hanover presented the idea at the board’s most recent meeting, on April 23, he said other members overruled it, citing concerns about the cost and a preference to keep any review in-house. 

OMG, they are going to waste $500,000 dollars while they are adrift at sea! 

So which friend runs the consultancy?

That decision led to the report the agency completed this week.

Meanwhile, board vice chairman Robert R. Jones, of Hyannis, called the series of breakdowns “an unprecedented nightmare,” but said he is confident management is taking appropriate steps and questioned the need for — and the cost of — bringing in the McKinsey consultants.

“They come in and they tell you what you already know,” said Jones. “I don’t see spending $500,000 for that.”

Other board members could not be reached.

Davis and Jones both said they attribute the timing of the problems to be, essentially, bad luck, but Hanover said he doubted it is a coincidence that one line has had so much misfortune.

Many of the problems have struck a ferry called the Martha’s Vineyard, which underwent a five-month, $17 million overhaul that involved installing a third backup generator, rebuilding passenger and crew areas, and constructing a new pilothouse, among other upgrades. That work was finished and the boat was put back into service in early March, just before the wave of breakdowns began.


Hanover said his main fear is that other board members have not fully grasped how serious the problems are because they don’t live on Martha’s Vineyard and aren’t seeing the problems firsthand.

“We understand weather and some mechanical breakdowns,” he said, “but this is just out of control.”


Others are not worried about being lost at sea:

"Ferry breakdowns are part of island life, say some on Martha’s Vineyard" by Jeremy C. Fox Globe Correspondent  May 13, 2018

OAK BLUFFS — Steve Davidian, longtime owner of Dockside Jewelers in this picturesque town on Martha’s Vineyard, says dealing with occasional ferry breakdowns is just part of living on an island.

“I’m not worried about it because it’s something I can’t control,” said Davidian, 63, as he sat behind a glass case in the shop he has owned for 34 years alongside his dog, Martha.

Just days after the Steamship Authority revealed that mechanical issues had forced it to cancel about 550 ferry trips between Falmouth and the Vineyard from January through April — about 15 times its yearly average — most island-dwellers and business owners interviewed under Sunday’s gray skies said they aren’t too worried about the service’s mechanical issues. Yet.

Then why did the Globe front-page it?

Some said the cold, damp weather that has lingered into May is a larger concern in a local economy dependent upon tourism, while others said they worry about public perception of the ferries’ operation by the quasi-public Steamship Authority as much as they do the reality.

All forgotten in the heat of July, right?

“Their image is tarnished slightly, and they have to go out there and they have to regain that confidence,” said Todd Rebello, 56, a lifelong Vineyard resident and former town selectman who owns South Beach Apparel and three other shops on Circuit Avenue. 

Once it's lost, you are sunk.

“This is a blip. . . . They’ve had a good track record,” Rebello said of the authority. “I believe we’re going to have a very successful season. I believe the mechanical problems are being addressed.”

If the issues do continue into summer, it could be “catastrophic” for local tourism, said Mary Ibsen, who for 12 years has owned the Madison Inn with her husband, Caleb Caldwell. Ibsen, 52, said, “They need to get their act together.”

For tourists, the ferries are transportation to a tranquil getaway. For business owners, a source of customers, but for year-round residents of the island, they are a “lifeline,” locals said, providing access to necessary products and materials and to medical care they can’t get locally.

Well, is it serious or isn't it? 

Sick of being rocked to and fro by the waves of the Globe!

Everett Francis, 56, who grew up on the island and was visiting his father there on Sunday, said machines today just aren’t made to last, not the way they once were.....

That's odd because the photograph of him says he is 55.

They can't even get that right!


"After an $18m overhaul, one Steamship Authority boat reeked of sewage. Then things got worse" by Matt Rocheleau Globe Staff  May 26, 2018

Under fire for recent breakdowns on ferries to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, the head of the Steamship Authority this week cast blame on a Rhode Island-based contractor for many of the mechanical failures and said the agency will demand money from the company for shoddy work.

That accusation sets up a potential feud with the contractor, Senesco Marine — one of just two companies the authority regularly relies on for major boat projects — at the moment the high season kicks off this weekend.

Three of the agency’s boats were sent to Senesco for long-scheduled upgrades in recent months, including an $18 million “mid-life” overhaul to a vessel called the Martha’s Vineyard. All three subsequently came back with a laundry list of problems, according to Steamship Authority general manager Robert B. Davis.

Internal documents, obtained by the Globe through a public records request to the quasi-public agency, show that the Martha’s Vineyard suffered more than 250 issues, including a pervasive stench of sewage and mechanical problems that Steamship staff attributed to “poor workmanship” and “improperly installed” parts.

The onslaught of breakdowns began shortly after the problems were discovered. Sometimes multiple failures sprang up in a single week, resulting in more than 550 cancellations so far this year for an agency that ferries 3 million passengers annually to and from the islands.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Steamship Authority governing board vice chair Robert R. Jones.

Officials at Senesco and its Staten Island-based parent company, Reinauer Transportation Cos., did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

According to the agency, Senesco sent maintenance crews to a Steamship Authority boatyard in Fairhaven to help fix problems that surfaced this spring after the boats returned to service, but the authority now says it will demand reimbursements from the company. Davis said the agency is sorting through which problems were Senesco’s responsibility so it can determine a dollar amount to attach.

Davis also conceded his agency shares blame for the wave of breakdowns, which included two just this week. The agency, he said, erred by scheduling three of its boats to be sent to a single contractor for major projects, one right after another, under tight deadlines.

He further said the agency underestimated the severity of the issues it discovered when the Martha’s Vineyard returned from its $18 million overhaul with Senesco. He conceded that the Steamship Authority rushed that boat back into service in early March.

Meanwhile, the Steamship Authority is grappling with turnover in its upper ranks. The maintenance supervisor, Peter Schwebach, left in April after nearly three years on the job, saying he was frustrated by what he called “systemic problems” at the agency. Then last week, the longtime chief captain, Charles “Greg” Gifford, announced he plans to retire next month. The agency’s general counsel and its human resources director also plan to retire this summer.

Davis and Jones insisted the timing of each exit was coincidental and not tied to the recent problems. Both the general counsel and the human resources director announced their plans to leave months ago.

Gifford, the chief captain, did not respond to a request for comment about his departure, but Schwebach was sharply critical of the agency. Poor workmanship by Senesco contributed to the recent failures, he said, though the Steamship Authority is not without fault.

“It’s highlighted a lot of issues that need to be fixed,” at the agency, including “structural and organizational problems” as well as inefficient scheduling and purchasing practices within the maintenance department, Schwebach said by phone.

Just hired a consultant!

Steamship Authority officials said they were aware of Schwebach’s concerns and agreed there may be inefficiencies within the agency’s own maintenance shop, which is responsible for ship upkeep and routine repairs. Davis said he hopes to address the various issues through a top-to-bottom, outside review set to start in July. 

The summer season will be over before they complete the review!!

The authority’s five-member governing board last week voted unanimously to hire a consultant amid backlash from state lawmakers and scores of island residents and business owners, upset by the disruption the cancellations have caused to their lives and the prospect of anxious tourists being scared away this summer.

“It’s getting old,” said Jones. “Sitting on the board and seeing these things, we’re just tired of it.”


But an internal review won’t address what went wrong with Senesco, the North Kingstown, R.I., contractor. The company has been a regular go-to for Steamship Authority boat work in recent years, and, prior to 2018, the agency said it had seen no significant problems with the work.

Davis said the decision to send three boats to the contractor’s shipyard in quick succession may have been a mistake. “The fact that three of the boats were back to back to back going to Senesco, I’m sure that must have stretched their resources,” he said.

If indeed Senesco was overloaded, it was unclear why it bid on the three separate projects. Steamship Authority board meeting minutes show that the company had to ask for at least one extension to complete the promised upgrades.

At the same time Senesco was struggling to finish those projects, it had its hands full with another crisis: Workers welding on a barge in that North Kingstown shipyard in January ignited an explosion that left two workers injured and prompted a probe by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That agency later said it didn’t find any violations, but recommended changes to some company practices, but as the three Steamship Authority boats began returning to the water this spring, the problems quickly mounted.....


Also see:

Contractor defends repair work on troubled Steamship authority ferries

If I gather any more articles I'll sound the horn.