Steamship Authority governors unveiled an ambitious business vision for the 21st century yesterday that calls for a new emphasis on summer visitors to both Islands with more passenger service, reduced car service, streamlined high-speed ferries from distant ports and a price tag that is potentially sky-high.
And when they exhaled from that, the boat line board voted to ink a $1.75 million deal to buy the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi.
"We're embarking on change and change is never easy," declared Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker.
"This is the first time I have seen us talking in terms of a common vision," said Falmouth SSA Governor Edward DeWitt.
"I'm glad we are putting this on the table. But there are a lot of implications with fast ferries and it's important to put some financial figures in before we really even talk about this," said Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman.
The remarks came at the regular monthly boat line meeting held in Woods Hole yesterday morning. The meeting capped two weeks of dramatic change at the public boat line, beginning last week with the surprise announcement that the SSA would buy the Schamonchi and take over the passenger route between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
The announcement about the Schamonchi came amid a series of broad statements about a changing service model and a new business plan for the boat line.
SSA general manager Armand Tiberio took the wraps off the new service model before a meeting room packed with members of the press and public.
At the outset, he said the plan is only a model.
"This is not to be looked at as a specific proposal or a specific solution - but in my mind it is a basis for moving forward," Mr. Tiberio said.
The new service model includes a sweeping program of change for the 40-year-old boat line, much of it wrapped around the concept of capping vehicle capacity on Island-bound ferries in the summer months and developing more intermodal off-Cape parking facilities. Among other things the service model calls for:
* High-speed passenger ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard by the year 2003.
* High-speed passenger, car and freight ferry service between Hyannis and Nantucket by the year 2003.
* Barging jet fuel and other petroleum products to both Islands.
* Limiting the length of trucks carried on ferries to both Islands to 55 feet.
* Refurbishing the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal to accommodate passenger-only vessels.
* Building a new high-speed ferry for the Nantucket run at a cost of some $27 million.
* Replacing the Schamonchi with the Flying Cloud, the current Nantucket fast ferry, once a new high-speed ferry to Nantucket is built.
* An aggressive marketing program encouraging customers to leave their cars on the mainland - especially in the off-Cape port of New Bedford.
* Reducing the number of trips on both runs by adding larger ferries with more capacity.
Mr. Tiberio said the business concept has two key tenets. "There is the bricks and mortar and there is the human issue," he said.
"We've got to take the first step and it may be a baby step - but we need to decide if this is our goal and something we want to pursue - and if so, how do we achieve this objective?" he added.
Calling the 11-page document a concept, Mr. Parker said the board will host public meetings, workshops and other discussions in the months ahead to discuss the details.
"This is not a business model; it's a business concept. It will be made into a business model when numbers and financial information are put into it," he said.
In related business the SSA board voted to spend $1.75 million to buy the Schamonchi. Closing will take place in the next 60 days, and Mr. Tiberio said the SSA will operate the passenger ferry on the New Bedford-Vineyard route beginning in May.
Boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson said the money to buy the ferry will eventually come from borrowing, and he said it is likely that Island residents will see a fare increase next year as a result.
The new business model proposal drew praise from a number of planning leaders and public officials who attended the meeting.
"The Steamship Authority has been operating since the 1960s and now you are going into the 21st century with a potential model to serve everyone well," said Dan Flynn, a Dukes County Commissioner and member of a state task force appointed recently by Gov. Paul Cellucci to study transportation and ferry issues in the region.
"You have an ambitious task ahead of you and I would remind you to continue using the Martha's Vineyard Commission to provide you with data," said MVC executive director Charles W. Clifford.
"I applaud the board and management for this comprehensive planning process," said Dukes County commissioner E.B. Collins, who is also a former Vineyard member of the SSA board of governors.
"I laud the board and management for putting this framework for discussion on the table," said John Pagini, director of the Nantucket planning and economic development council.
But New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire said it was not enough.
"I would love to be able to come here today and say how happy I am with what I've heard and I do commend you for thinking outside of the box," Mr. Leontire began.
"But I have very grave concerns about what I have heard today, because other than buying the Schamonchi, I so not see where New Bedford is a part of this plan."
Mr. Leontire criticized the proposal to move the fast ferry Flying Cloud to the New Bedford-Vineyard run because he said he believes the ferry is not well-suited to Buzzard's Bay. He criticized the board for excluding New Bedford from the Nantucket portion of the business vision, and he said when it came to the Schamonchi, the city was considering its own options, including the possibility of taking the Schamonchi by eminent domain.
"We will file for that tomorrow morning, if we have the authority, although it's a step I don't want to take," he said.
"This doesn't mean that we are saying that we need to have the whole enchilada," he added.
Mr. Leontire did praise the Vineyard SSA governor, and Mr. Parker returned the compliment.
"We welcome constructive discussion and I am glad you are here today and that you are willing to cooperate with us," he said.
Mr. Leontire also announced that the city has chosen its own delegate for the SSA board of governors, and he said the selection will be announced by the city council next week. "You will all be pleased with the selection, and it is someone who is opposite to my personality," he said.
A bill was approved by the state legislature last year allowing a nonvoting seat on the board for New Bedford, but the bill was left in limbo when Governor Cellucci did not sign two sections.
The status of any seat for New Bedford is today unclear.
At the meeting yesterday one Nantucket resident expressed open skepticism at the new business concept for the boat line.
"The Steamship Authority is not subsidized. Where is the money going to come from?" said Nat Lowell.