Five years of ferry surveys: Data collection helps preserve critical federal funding
It's 6:00 a.m. in Hyannis, and the ferry docks are busy. A long line winds through the lot, comprised of passengers waiting to board the boat to Nantucket. Some are excited to begin a vacation, others are returning to their summer homes, and many are commuting to the island for work.
In July 2023, the median home price on Nantucket was a staggering $5 million. Year-round rentals are scarce and expensive, with rent in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per month. Workers like teachers, tradespeople, healthcare employees, and delivery drivers can't afford the island's high housing prices, yet their jobs are needed. Taking the ferry from the mainland is a lifeline for these workers and the island community.
Given the unique nature of this service, the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority urged the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) to consider this ferry route a commuter service. The commuter designation for a ferry route translates into millions of dollars in annual federal funding support for the region's transit system.
For a route to qualify for commuter status, the FTA requires that more than 50 percent of passengers must return on the same day. In 2018, the Cape Cod Commission began an intensive data collection effort to discover the number of same-day passengers using the ferry lines between Hyannis and Nantucket, hoping to preserve commuter status and retain more than $5 million in annual federal funding.
Commission staff began surveying passengers in the summer of 2018. A commuter is a traveler who makes a round trip in a single day, so the survey included a straightforward question: "Are you returning today?"
The project wrapped up initially in the summer of 2019, and the Commission sent survey results to the federal government for review. The FTA needed more data, so in March 2020, transportation staff began planning an intense data collection effort to start in the summer of that year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted those plans. It quickly became evident that collecting commuter data during a pandemic that kept most people at home would not provide accurate results.
In 2021, the Commission met with the Steamship Authority, Hy-Line Cruises, and the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority to plan a coordinated effort for the next round of surveys. In the summer of 2021, Commission staff again began meeting ferries in Hyannis to interview as many passengers as possible.
It was important for the team to collect data from trips throughout the day and in every month of the year. Throughout the project, Commission staff interviewed tens of thousands of ferry travelers, meeting boats at all times of the day, all year round. The team conducted one full day of surveys per month, each month of the year, talking to workers, residents, and vacationers. The project ended this summer, following one final and intense week of data collection in July, during which staff met ferries daily for an entire week. Overall, nearly 35,000 people were interviewed. The data collected and reviewed indicated that more than half of the people using the ferry service were returning on the same day, qualifying the service for commuter status.
In August, the FTA preserved the commuter status of Steamship Authority and HyLine Cruises ferries from Hyannis to Nantucket, retaining millions of dollars in annual federal aid for our local transit system. Congressman William Keating played a key role in protecting commuter status in perpetuity.
"I am incredibly grateful to FTA Administrator Fernandez for taking the time to understand the unique transportation challenges facing our neighbors who live and work on Nantucket," said Congressman Keating, in a statement issued on August 23. "Just as there was in 2020, there is once again a great sense of relief that we were able to preserve this critical transit funding for our community."