Boat schedules and freight rates

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 7:30pm

A meeting between the Town Council and representatives from Interstate Navigation that was once an annual occurrence — but in recent years had gone dormant — was revived this past week, with the two groups going over some concerns and possible changes for the future.

While no action was taken at the meeting, there were two primary concerns from the members of the Council about the ferry service: one was to look into ways on how the ferries can be used to educate and inform passengers about some aspects of island life, such as keeping off the dunes or not bringing single-use plastic bags to the island. The other was to investigate whether the one-boat-each-way schedule on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the off-season could be improved. This current schedule does not allow for one-day trips off-island. Interstate representatives also asked if its buildings could be placed on a priority list in terms of getting wired into the island’s new high-speed internet service, saying that it would greatly improve customer service.

Another topic that was briefly broached at the meeting was the freight rate increase that went into effect six years ago. In 2013, the Public Utilities Commission approved an across-the-board freight rate increase of 34 percent.

“We want to work with you guys on freight rates. Freight rates are a big issue,” said Councilor Sven Risom. “Tourists have to pay for it,” he said, and he was concerned that because of that “tourists will stop coming here.”

The freight rate increase was in the “low thirties,” said Mike McElroy, attorney for Interstate Navigation, who was representing the company along with owner Josh Linda and Janette Centracchio, head of the company’s Ticket Office. “It hasn’t gone up since then, and we don’t have any plans to increase them. I don’t think you have to worry about that.”

“Freight rates affect every business,” said Risom.

Councilor Chris Willi explained that if Interstate wanted to increase its freight rates again, it would have to go before the PUC. McElroy said that a freight rate increase was complicated, and that a “cost of service study” for every kind of item transported on the boat as freight would have to be undertaken before it could even be considered.

As far as the boat schedules on Tuesday and Wednesdays during the off-season, local business owner Chris Warfel said the paucity of runs puts him and other business owners on the island at a professional disadvantage. There is only one boat going to and from the island on those two days.

“I’m not able to schedule business meetings off the island on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” said Warfel. He also said that there is often talk of creating a year-round economy on Block Island, “but the Tuesday-Wednesday schedule does not accommodate that.”

From Interstate’s perspective, the central “question is of demand,” said McElroy. “It comes down to cost-effectiveness.”

Warfel said to the Council, “Why don’t you ask Interstate to develop a schedule of costs? They can do some rough estimates.” He said that the assumption was that if more boats were added “there would be more costs, but what are those costs?”

“It would be interesting to see an analysis of the services to us and the costs to you,” said First Warden Ken Lacoste to the Interstate representatives. “Maybe this is something that can be done.”

“Are you willing to supply that information to us,” asked Councilor Sven Risom. “I mean, if the answer is no…”

McElroy said that certain expenses would have to be factored in, such as fuel, payroll, and insurance. The other side of the question, McElroy said, was “what would the revenue be?” Would Interstate be carving out ridership from the other boats, he asked. “What if there’s no revenue to cover those costs, and would we have to cover it with a rate increase?” asked McElroy.

Risom wondered if there was an increase to a ticket price for the extra ferry if that “wasn’t something the island could bear.”

Second Warden André Boudreau said a possible increase in the price of a ticket may be palatable to island residents if it meant that those residents would not have to book an overnight hotel room on the mainland because there was only one boat a day during the middle of the week.

Town Manager Ed Roberge said that it might be a good idea for the Council to put together a couple of scenarios of how many boat trips they would like to see rather than have Interstate try to guess at it.

“That’s a good idea,” said McElroy.

“This is a first step to see what the additional costs are,” said Risom.

“We’ll see where it goes,” said McElroy. “See where it goes.”

On the education front, Risom said to the Interstate representatives: “As you know, educating our visitors is becoming important, whether it’s the dunes, plastics, whatever it is. How can we have space on the ferries to educate people about our rules and regulations?” Risom asked if there was space for a poster, or even digital space for a video, to relate information about certain aspects of island life that would be useful for passengers to know before they disembarked.

Other topics were discussed, such as congestion when the boats unload during the summer, or if there were better times to schedule boats for packages sent by UPS or FedEx — the boat either leaves too early before the packages arrive at the ferry dock on the mainland, or they arrive on the island too late to be picked up on the same day. There was also some discussion as to whether the fast ferries could be run all year long.

Josh Linda said that “rough seas” are what prevent the fast ferries from running during the off-season, to which Boudreau said a fast ferry ride even in rough seas might be worth it. “I’ve always looked at it as a half hour of hell as compared to an hour of hell,” he joked.

As far as trying to lessen congestion when passengers and cars disembark during the peak season, Lacoste said “we know it’s a tough nut to crack, but it’s gotten to the point where something has to be done.”

Roberge said he was working with Interstate to set up some meeting dates when this could be discussed.