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Lifeline to the Islands, or Stranglehold on Cape Cod? Neighbors Say Ferries' Freight Traffic is Changing the Cape

This story is part of CAI’s series on increasing vehicle traffic on the Steamship Authority ferries to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and how the communities it impacts are responding.

Ah, morning on the Upper Cape — a mix of bird song, sea air, and the roar and rumble of commercial trucks making their way to the island ferries.

Freight boats start at 5:30 a.m., which means by 4:30, the trucks are hurtling past Deborah Siegal’s house in West Falmouth. They’re headed down Route 28 toward Woods Hole.

“It's just very loud, and it's a surprising way to wake up,” she said. “And once you're awake, that's it. ... Going back to sleep is not usually an option.”

She lives seven miles from the Woods Hole ferry terminal.

“It can almost sound this bad at 4:30 in the morning with the windows open and the wind blowing from the east,” she said.

Siegal and others who wake to noise and fumes are trying to awaken the rest of Cape Cod to something bigger. They say the Steamship Authority is shaping the mainland with ever-expanding operations exempt from local planning.

“It's like the parasite who kills the host,” said Bill Hallstein, another Falmouth resident. “And that's really how the islands are functioning now.”

Jennette Barnes
Falmouth residents Bill Hallstein and Deborah Siegal say the increasing truck traffic on the Steamship Authority ferries should be routed from an off-Cape port.

Approaching 200,000 Yearly Truck Trips

Hallstein is one of the founding members of the SMART Citizens Task Force. The group hopes to direct some of the ferries’ booming truck traffic to off-Cape ports.

Over the last decade, truck trips to and from the Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have swelled 25 percent. In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, they numbered more than 195,000.

On the Vineyard route alone, trucks made more than 141,000 trips in 2019, up from about 116,000 a decade earlier.

Hallstein says today’s ferry line is a juggernaut created by bad 1960 legislation and subsequent mission creep.

“They now openly say that their mission is market-driven,” he said.

He says the Steamship Authority and the Islands call the ferry a lifeline, but “lifeline” has come to mean things like home building and the tourist business — “not medicine, fuel, and stuff, so they don't die during the winter.”

The law gives the quasi-public Steamship Authority full discretion over who can carry maritime freight to the Islands. As a result, virtually all of that freight travels on Steamship Authority boats.

The law also gives the Islands more weight in voting on the authority board, so if they vote together, they have an automatic majority over the three mainland members from Falmouth, Barnstable, and New Bedford.

Ronald Rappaport, a former board member from Martha’s Vineyard, says that’s how it should be.

“There's a good reason for that, because the Steamship Authority is the lifeline to the islands,” he said. “It is our quote-unquote highway. It's how we get back and forth, how we get our freight, how we get our goods, necessities, and it is critical to the Islands.”

He said though derided as a monopoly, the authority’s licensing power is necessary because winter service runs at a loss. The ferry’s summer profits support transportation to the Islands over the winter.

Is New Bedford An Answer? Depends Who You Ask

Mainland activists suggest sending some of the freight out of New Bedford. They say that’s better for Cape traffic and the environment, because right now, many goods pass right by New Bedford on their way to Woods Hole.

The Steamship Authority is the lifeline to the islands. It is our quote-unquote highway. It's how we get back and forth, how we get our freight, how we get our goods, necessities, and it is critical to the Islands.
Ron Rappaport, former Martha's Vineyard representative to the SSA

But Rappaport says no. For him, it’s a fundamental math question of service from New Bedford requiring longer trips, on more open water, with greater odds that trips will be canceled for weather.

“It's three times the length,” he said. “That means you need three times as many boats, three times as many employees, three times the gas, three times the cost to provide what you can provide from Woods Hole.”

Hallstein, of the mainland activist group, strenuously disagrees. He says there isn’t one type of freight. There’s fast freight, like fresh food, which has to travel quickly, and there’s slow freight, which could go by barge and depart from New Bedford whenever the barge is full.

He says slow freight also uses less fuel, and vessels could take advantage of new, clean-power technologies.

New Bedford, for its part, is open to hosting Island freight traffic — if it benefits the port.

Mayor Jon Mitchell says freight service wouldn’t generate any jobs for New Bedford, so it would have to bring revenue.

“For us, a truck loading and offloading point would not be that lucrative unless we could charge a tariff,” he said. “And, you know, I'm sure that folks on the Islands would not welcome the increase in prices of various goods that would come with a tariff.”

All sides agree growth is happening. The question is, will the capacity of the ports control growth naturally, as Islanders have suggested, or does the region need a plan to ensure growth doesn’t do more harm than good?

And — who gets to decide?