The governor's ferry task force that recently staged a four-month crash course on the Steamship Authority has now opened the door for a major overhaul of the public boat line that has served the two Islands for 41 years.
The task force report, issued last Friday, recommends sweeping change on the board of governors for the SSA. The recommendation calls for expanding the board by adding voting seats for Barnstable and New Bedford. The report also calls for retaining Island control on the board by giving a weighted vote to each member.
The six-page report was written by the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge who chaired the task force.
Appointed by former Gov. Paul Cellucci late last year, the task force was charged with studying an array of issues around ferry service to the two Islands, including freight service and whether New Bedford should become an additional port.
Ironically, the only real recommendation to come out of the report centers on a subject that was not included in the original charge for the task force.
"The issue of representation is so powerful an element in the debate among the interested communities, that failing to deal with it in a report on ferry service to the Islands would be like staging Hamlet without Hamlet," Judge Kass wrote.
Currently the SSA governing board comprises members from the Vineyard, Nantucket and Falmouth. The SSA operates without state and federal subsidy, and any deficit is paid by taxpayers in the three ports. The Vineyard pays 50 per cent of any deficit, Nantucket pays 40 per cent and Falmouth pays 10 per cent.
The Kass report recommends adding voting seats for New Bedford and Barnstable, but it allows for the two Islands to retain voting control by recommending that the weight of the votes corresponds directly with the share of any deficit.
The report calls for New Bedford, Barnstable and Falmouth to each pay 15 per cent of any deficit. The Vineyard and Nantucket would share the remaining 55 per cent, with 30 per cent assigned to the Vineyard and 25 per cent assigned to Nantucket. The uneven proportion translates to a 55 per cent vote for the two Islands, allowing the Island members to have a majority vote on the board.
Since 1991, Barnstable has had a nonvoting member on the board. Barnstable currently does not share in any deficit, but it has veto power over SSA capital spending over $50,000. The Kass report recommends removing the veto power in exchange for adding a voting member and a share of the deficit.
The Kass commission is now expected to draft legislation based on the report.
The report is a short study in contradictions. It says that the boat line works well and should not be changed - "We do not wish to tamper with a machine that is not broken," the report says - but then it recommends material change.
The report finds that expanding boards is bad practice - "As boards grow larger, they become more difficult to convene and generally less efficient," the report says - but it recommends that the board be expanded.
The report is also marred by factual errors, among other things declaring that the SSA has not run a deficit since 1960.
In fact the boat line has run an operating deficit four times since 1960. Those deficits were not assessed to the port communities, but were made up from reserve funds.
The task force report skips lightly across the surface of most of the complicated issues that have plagued the boat line for the last few years, including freight service to the two Islands, the summer pilot program that was designed to test the market for freight, and the use of New Bedford as an alternate port to help relieve summer traffic congestion on Cape Cod.
The report recommends that the SSA plan for using New Bedford as an alternate port, and it suggests that the city of New Bedford work with the SSA "to develop a passenger terminal and parking facilities in New Bedford," but it is unclear who would pay for this development.
The report also brushes at the issue of high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Islands, and it appears to suggest that the boat line should subsidize such an operation. "The SSA will have to keep rates roughly at parity with rates from Woods Hole, even though the trip is longer. Were it otherwise, visitors may prefer to pay in inconvenience for the price of lower ferry costs at Woods Hole," Judge Kass wrote in the report.
The report pointedly avoids any recommendation on freight service from New Bedford. "As a regional planning matter that is desirable, but the SSA is best equipped by experience and staffing to work out service that can pay its way," the report says.
Reaction to the report was mixed this week.
"Under the circumstances I understand that we got the best we could, but I'm not particularly happy about it," said Martha's Vineyard Commission executive director Charles W. Clifford. "It was long on bone and short on meat. And New Bedford got exactly what they wanted - they got a vote," he added.
Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker said the report reveals a certain grasp of boat line issues. He said:
"I think the report reflects that the task force came to understand the complexity of the service the Steamship Authority performs and the issues that it deals with in all of its ports, and realized that adjustment of service and response to ports is an ongoing, continuing business which cannot really be summarized and either mandated or codified at any point in time and have it be a successful model for the future.
"It's a work in progress, and I think they understood that."
Mr. Parker said he is unhappy with the recommended change on the board of governors.
"It is not what I would prefer, and it's not what the Islands would prefer - on the other hand they decided that they had to do something to signify the interests of the mainland communities, and I am delighted that since they did choose to do that, they also realize that with the authority comes responsibility," he said.
Mr. Parker said he will not oppose the recommended change on the board.
"I don't believe that it is the function of a member of an authority that is a creature of the state," he said, adding: "I think if the communities feel it is the wrong approach, their voices can and should be heard."
Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman said the report lacks substance. "Not much there," she said. "It's nonbinding, it still has to go to the legislature and until then there is nothing we can do," she added.
Mrs. Grossman said she believes Barnstable should have a voting seat on the board, but not New Bedford.
"The two things are very different. I believe that any port that handles year-round service should be eligible for a vote. Now we are in the midst of a pilot program on a seasonal basis, and we are going to run the Schamonchi on a seasonal basis. I do not feel that New Bedford qualifies to have a voting member," Mrs. Grossman said.
Dan Flynn, the Vineyard appointed member to the task force, called the report a happy compromise for the Islands.
"I'm pleased with the task force, considering what it could have been and knowing what was on the table. You have to understand, there were some very powerful political forces there. The idea that we were going to have the majority share [on the board] wasn't shared by everybody at the outset," he said.
Mr. Flynn said he did not agree with changing the board, but in the end he said there was little choice.
"In consensus building there are things that have to be given up to get other things. If you were to build this report totally on fact, instead of taking the political things into consideration, it might have been different," Mr. Flynn said.
"I thoroughly understand where this report could have gone, and I am glad it did not go there," he concluded.
SSA general manager Armand Tiberio had no comment.
But former Vineyard SSA governor Ronald H. Rappaport said he expected more. "I had expected a lengthy report with a factual analysis looking at the freight program and the Steamship Authority operation," Mr. Rappaport said. He continued:
"This is not that. This is a political document filled with sound bites, the essential conclusion of which is that the Steamship Authority is well-run. It leaves me with the question, why make a major change? Why invite high-speed automobile and passenger service without even a nod toward the significant costs and the impact on the Islands of additional traffic? The fundamental question - who pays? - is left alone."