A special state task force charged with studying ferry and transportation problems on the Cape and Islands will hold a set of public hearings beginning next week in New Bedford, and continuing through the month of February on Nantucket, Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard.
The April 15 report of the task force is expected to have far-reaching implications for ferry transportation in the region and also the way of life on the Islands.
The 11-member task force was appointed by Gov. Paul Cellucci late last year in an attempt to broker a compromise in the heated dispute over whether to open up ferry service between New Bedford and the two Islands.
The dispute escalated to a peak when New Bedford city officials became actively engaged in an attempt at a hostile takeover of the public boat line.
"One has the sense that New Bedford and the Islands were screaming at each other and it wasn't working very well," declared the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a Cambridge resident and retired state appeals court judge who is chairman of the task force. Judge Kass spoke briefly with the Gazette this week by telephone from his office in Boston.
The 11-member task force includes one member from each Island, one from the Cape, two from New Bedford, five ex-officio members from an array of state offices, and Mr. Kass.
Town officials in Tisbury have formally objected to the fact that the task force does not include a representative from the primary port town on the Vineyard.
"Vineyard Haven is the major port for the Steamship Authority. Tisbury is the community most affected by changes to the boat line's operation," the selectmen wrote in a letter to Governor Cellucci early this month. The selectmen also wrote: "It would be more than unfortunate if our town were not represented on the task force, it would be unacceptable. . . . We also feel that the task force will lack credibility if Tisbury is not a direct participant."
An organizational meeting of the task force was held last week. The first public hearing will be held on Thursday, Feb. 1 in New Bedford, followed by a hearing on Nantucket on Feb. 7 and a hearing in Hyannis on Feb. 15. The final public hearing will be held on the Vineyard on Feb. 22.
"This is not a polarized task force. There is an understanding that we are dealing with a complex problem," Mr. Kass said. "What we hope to do is come out with a report that makes some recommendations that will not be universally pleasing but will be aimed at bringing people the best sort of solution that we can," he added.
Judge Kass said the core mission of the task force is wrapped around fact-finding.
"We are a fact-finding board appointed by the executive branch," he said.
He appeared to recognize at least the superficial issues on both sides, taking note of the New Bedford arguments favoring more ferry service from their port, and also taking note of the decision last week by the SSA to step into the pitch and swing - and buy the passenger ferry Schamonchi in New Bedford.
"There are some obvious regional transportation benefits if you were coming from New York or Connecticut and had to go by New Bedford, that you might want to take a ferry from there rather than fight your way onto the bridge - and to some extent there has already been some progress made in that direction with the purchase of the Schamonchi by the SSA," Mr. Kass said.
But the retired jurist also gave a nod to the view from the Islands, where there is widespread concern about maintaining control over the public boat line that was created 40 years ago to provide dependable ferry service for year-round Island residents.
"You can't solve the problems or meet the aspirations of one area at the price of another," Judge Kass said. He concluded: "So there is a lot of fact finding to be done. There was a reason why in 1960 the old New Bedford, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority was dissolved and replaced with the Woods Hole, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard Steamship Authority."
Judge Kass said freight transportation to the two Islands will be a key issue for study.
He said the role of the task force is not intended to supplant the role of the boat line board of governors, but in the same breath he bluntly acknowledged the political realities.
"The primary duty of the Steamship Authority governors is to act in the interests of the Steamship Authority, and one hopes that is not dissonant with the interests of the communities they serve," he said, "but it is also true that they are a creature of statute that the legislature could abolish tomorrow.
"And so the agitation of the legislature needs to be of interest to the Steamship Authority, and it needs to be of interest to the task force."
He said the public hearings are important.
"It's an important part of the process so people can be heard. I am not unaware that public hearings often can include a display of polarized emotions - but I hope that some will use it as an opportunity to present us with some reasoning and pertinent material," he said.
Judge Kass said the first hearing will be held in New Bedford, "in part because that is where the push to alter the status quo is coming from."
The public hearing begins at 7:30 p.m. on the third floor of the New Bedford Free Public Library.
Judge Kass said following the hearings, the task force will settle in for "discussion and writing." He said the committee may decide to enlist the participation of an outside transportation consultant if it decides it is needed. He said he expects to meet the April 15 deadline.
He dryly predicted that the report will not please all the parties in the dispute.
"The honeymoon will be over as soon as we issue our report," he said.