What Would Nantucket Look Like Without High-Speed Ferry Service?

JohnCarl McGrady •

The Hy-Line Cruises ferry outbound from Nantucket. Photo by Kit Noble | NantucketStock.com

Severe staffing shortages. Massive decreases in tourism. Island residents unable to access needed medical care or leave the island to visit family. It may read like a list of Nantucket’s greatest fears, but it’s just a sample of the potential consequences that could unfold if the federal government bans high-speed ferry service off the East Coast from November to June, as proposed in a new rule under consideration to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

“Fast and reliable ferry service is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” said Peter Burke, executive director of the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, said. “That’s our lifeline.”

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) first proposed the rule, many assumed Nantucket Sound would be exempted. The impacts were too massive and too devastating, and other areas with confirmed right whale sightings were getting exemptions. Surely, Nantucket Sound, which hasn’t had a right whale sighting in decades, would join them. So far, that hasn’t been the case.

“There were other areas where there were sightings that were exempted, like Buzzards Bay, so the logic of this really doesn't make any sense,” Select Board Chair Brooke Mohr said.

Now, the regulations are one step away from becoming law, and the town is scrambling to stop them, releasing public statements, contacting Congressional representatives, presenting before the federal government, and calling on locals to join the fight. But what if it’s not enough? What would life on Nantucket look like without high-speed ferry service?

Perhaps the most obvious impact is economic. The Hy-Line, for one, would almost certainly be forced to close, and the numerous businesses that rely on the Hy-Line for the people and goods it transports would struggle to remain afloat as well. The economic impact would stretch far beyond just the Hy-Line, however, a fact the boat line’s president Murray Scudder knows well.

“The inability for Nantucket residents, business owners, and municipality to receive the

freight and necessities of life on a consistent and ongoing schedule would make life on the island unsustainable,” he wrote.

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The Steamship Authority's M/V Eagle and M/V Iyanough in Nantucket Harbor. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com

“I couldn't think of a business that wouldn't be affected. There's just zero business that doesn't have some kind of mainland connection,” Burke added. “Those changes would manifest in different ways, whether it's pricing, whether it's availability. whether it's closures for certain days.”

Many island businesses rely on workers who commute to Nantucket daily from the mainland. Without high-speed ferry travel, those daily commutes would be all but impossible—and the commuters are extremely difficult to replace. The island is already littered with help-wanted signs. If a huge portion of the island’s workforce suddenly disappeared, Burke isn’t sure how local businesses would find labor. While the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have any hard data on how many businesses rely on commuters, Burke is confident the number is high.

“The commuter traffic is real,” he said.

The loss of that workforce is not the only way local businesses would be impacted. It would suddenly become much more expensive to ship goods to the island, and the space to ship those goods would be limited and hotly contested. Tourism would also suffer, decreasing sales and income for island businesses. Even though the restrictions would be lifted in the summer months, the Hy-Line’s likely closure would slash the number of people who could make it to the island, and not all of the island’s tourism falls between June and November.

“Daffodil Day and Christmas Stroll are both within the season that would get constrained,” Burke pointed out. While he believed the Chamber of Commerce would continue to run Daffodil Day if the restrictions were passed, it would look different and generate far less revenue.

In total, the economic costs could be well into the ten-figure range.

“The impact of these proposed regulations on the islands of Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard

and surrounding ports is inestimable but it is safe to say that it would be in the billions of dollars,” Scudder wrote.

But as devastating as the economic impacts could be, they might not even be the island’s primary concern.

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The Hy-Line Cruises ferry rounding Brant Point. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com

“It would be a huge blow for our patients and our hospital,” Nantucket Cottage Hospital President Amy Lee said. “It would be very harmful for healthcare on the island.”

NCH is always planning for the worst, but it was clear from Lee’s tone that the proposed restrictions had hospital officials reeling. Without high-speed ferry service, NCH would be forced to cut back dramatically on clinics, struggle to store sufficient amounts of critical medical supplies, and lose its primary method of transporting patients off-island when bad weather prevents med flights. Certain patients, like those with behavioral health problems, legally cannot be transported by Medflight helicopter and have to take the ferry. For some of them, an extra few hours on the water could be the difference between life and death.

“Time is of the essence,” Lee said.

That’s especially true when it comes to the limited number of inpatient psychiatric beds available in the state. Nantucket doesn’t have an inpatient psychiatric facility, so patients have to go off-island. Lee worries that if the trip from Nantucket to the mainland got much longer, other hospitals might offer beds that could have gone to Nantucket patients to mainland residents that could fill them faster.

“We would lose those beds,” she said.

Nantucket has survived without high-speed ferry travel in the past, but not every islander can say the same. Because of advances in medical technology and the introduction of fast ferry service, many patients with life-threatening diagnoses now have a better chance at survival. But only if they can access the treatments, many of which aren’t available on-island. One example is radiation therapy treatment for cancer.

“We don't do radiation on-island,” Lee said. “[Patients] go to the Cape, they go to Boston, they go to other places. And for those patients who need treatment three or four times a week, that could make travel almost impossible.”

Those patients would practically — perhaps literally — have to live off-island.

Beyond economic and medical impacts, there are a raft of smaller issues the regulations could cause. High School sports, for instance, would be decimated.

“We could probably operate as normal for fall sports, but winter and spring would be very difficult,” Nantucket High School athletic director Travis Lombardi said. “It could be devastating to all our sports on the island.”

Nantucket residents concerned about the restrictions can use this template to write to their representatives.

Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com
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