NEW BEDFORD - Encouraged by hundreds of applauding onlookers, New Bedford political leaders, transportation planners and tourism promoters last night issued their demand for full ferry service to the two Islands - and for a place on the Steamship Authority governing board, all in the name of commerce and progress.
"I want to work with the Steamship Authority and the Islands … but only on the basis of an equal footing - not as the stepchild of any community or authority. We will continue to demand the rights and privileges we are entitled to," declared New Bedford Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr.
"This issue is not about money and deficits, it is about control. It is completely, completely unacceptable to maintain the status quo," declared New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire.
"It is the legislature in the end that decides whether the authority continues, expands or contracts," warned New Bedford state Sen. Mark Montigny.
The remarks came during a public hearing in New Bedford hosted by the governor's ferry task force, the first of four public hearings planned by the task force in each of the port communities.
Held on the third floor of the New Bedford Free Public Library, a handsome Greek Revival building in the heart of the downtown historic district, the hearing last night drew an overflow crowd of some 300 people. The hearing had been promoted all week in local newspapers, and it was a well-organized session complete with video coverage in the hallway, large displays of excerpts from SSA studies and a larger-than-life version of the boat line schedule between Woods Hole and the Vineyard. On the street outside the library, a New Bedford resident and his two small children staged a demonstration in favor of ferry service to the Islands and bringing a casino to the Whaling City.
But center stage was reserved inside the library for the task force and its chairman, Judge Rudolph Kass, a retired justice of the state appeals court. The task force includes one spokesman from each port community plus a number of state representatives. Last night the panel was made up of eight men and one woman.
The ferry task force was formed late last year by Gov. Paul Cellucci after a bitter yearlong political battle over whether to open up ferry service from New Bedford to the two Islands. At the center of the battle were powerful New Bedford legislators, who staged an aggressive hostile takeover attempt of the 40-year-old public boat line.
The battle ended in a draw when Governor Cellucci killed a bill to overhaul the SSA enabling legislation, and appointed the task force instead.
The task force report is due April 15.
"Our purpose is to be informed and our objective is to do what makes rational economic sense for southeastern Massachusetts, and for the Cape and Islands," Judge Kass said at the outset.
Mr. Montigny, the powerful chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee who led the battle to take over the boat line last year, had the floor first. He pointed to the traffic problems on the Cape.
"New Bedford didn't create this; in fact it was the leaders on the Cape who came to us and said, ‘We've got a problem,' " Mr. Montigny said.
Amid a series of showy remarks about Island celebrities, the dashing senator said he understood the plight of year-round Island residents and he suggested that the summer residents were responsible for throwing up roadblocks to New Bedford ferry service.
"It's been a scare tactic by the summer folks who once they get their little slice of paradise, they want to keep everyone else out," he said.
He also made it clear that the legislature has not faded from the picture. "I am saying this only as a promise, not a threat, that if we need to, we will re-enter and micro-manage," Mr. Montigny said.
Mayor Kalisz and his city solicitor completed the message.
"The Steamship Authority is a public entity and needs to act like one. Most of all, it needs to be held accountable," the mayor said.
"Let the Islands have their authority if they refuse to recognize they must partner with the mainland, but release us from bondage," Mr. Leontire said.
Mr. Leontire read into the record a long position statement.
At times the hearing took on the flavor of a high court proceeding, as Judge Kass respectfully broke into people's testimony to ask questions or probe a subject further. Most of the leading speakers drew sustained applause, especially Mr. Leontire.
There were few kind words for the public boat line, and more than one speaker suggested that it be abolished.
"I think the Islands, like the French in 1940, are guilty of fighting the last war. . . . The Steamship Authority should be privatized. The present authority could continue as a community or state-owned operator, or preferably it would sell its assets to the private sector and go out of business," said Dana Coggins, a Mattapoisett resident who grew up on the Vineyard.
Others said New Bedford is the obvious answer to the port needs of the SSA. "New Bedford has the infrastructure, we have the highways, we have the access for shipping goods to Martha's Vineyard. New Bedford has said we are willing to help because we are able to," said city council president Denis Lawrence Jr.
"We mean business; the people of New Bedford are serious about this," said Thomas Lopes, the publisher of an area Cape Verdean newspaper.
A number of speakers praised the concept of high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Islands, and the hearing even saw a promotional presentation from a spokesman for an Italian high-speed ferry company. Ralph Keith showed a large color photograph of a 76-meter mono-hull ferry that he said could travel between New Bedford and Nantucket in one hour and 40 minutes. A smaller version of the same ferry could travel from New Bedford to the Vineyard in 45 minutes, he said.
"What is the cost?" asked Judge Kass.
"About $28 million, but I don't think cost is what you need to look at," Mr. Keith said.
"Really?" Mr. Kass returned.
The ferry salesman said the boat could make a profit even running at half capacity.
John Zakian, executive director of the New Bedford economic development council, said the central issue is one of regional economic progress.
"This is a region and the region includes the Cape and Islands and a fundamental principal of economic development is that one part of a region can't be isolated," he said.
Mr. Zakian spoke about the need to create more business growth and more transportation access throughout the region.
"Do you see a difference between being isolated by transportation and being isolated by geography?" asked Dan Flynn, the Vineyard member of the task force.
"I think they are synonymous - isolation is bad," Mr. Zakian replied.
The task force will hold three more consecutive public hearings this month: one on Nantucket, one on Cape Cod and one on the Vineyard.
The Nantucket public hearing will be held next Wednesday night in the Nantucket courthouse. The hearing begins at 7:30 p.m. The final hearing will be held on the Vineyard on Feb. 22.