A selling job. Pitching the fast ferry. This is the main melody these days at the Steamship Authority, where management activities have spun into overdrive on the ambitious new service model that has been under discussion in all the port communities for the last five months.
In recent weeks, the discussion has begun to take on a fractured quality as leading proponents of the service model zip through a satchel of concepts, never unpacking one for too long - or in too much depth.
To be sure, the boat line has generated stacks of paper in connection with the service model. But there is a jumbled quality to all of it, and after five months of work the service model is starting to sound more like a promotional campaign and less like a careful search for hard information. A recent examination by the Gazette of most of the available public records in connection with the service model revealed the following:
* Mass mailings to dozens of state and local politicians on an array of unfinished topics.
* A financial analysis that the boat line treasurer says is at best extremely premature and based on highly questionable assumptions.
* Letters, company brochures and semi-formal sales pitches from shipyards that build fast ferries.
* Notes from staff meetings and public meetings held on the service model. In the notes one senior manager kept of a meeting held on Nantucket, he dubbed Nantucket legislative liaison Tim Madden a "joker." The Nantucket meeting was marked by a record turnout of 800 residents, who objected in unison to the service model.
"Thank you very much for your call today, and we are very happy to assist you in your selling of the high-speed ferry concept," wrote Chris Pemberton, vice president of sales and marketing for Austal USA, in a letter to SSA general manager Armand Tiberio early this month. Austal is an Australian high-speed ferry company.
"I understand from you that what you particularly need at this time are good examples of where high-speed vessels are carrying trucks successfully," Mr. Pemberton wrote. The salesman went on to write that in truth, there are no really good examples of high-speed ferries that carry trucks because "this load capability has not been used too extensively up to now."
Mr. Pemberton also wrote: "Reliability seems to be the issue that local opposition forces are focusing on, and I guess you have had more than your fair share of engine problems with Flying Cloud. . . . The airline industry keeps very good statistics about . . . reliability, but sadly our industry does not. If you want to go down this path. I can find you something, but it would probably just focus on a few bad stories about other engine types."
The letter was written on May 4; a second version of the letter dated May 10 was distributed to SSA board members. The second version omitted all of Mr. Pemberton's statements about reliability and "bad stories."
Mr. Tiberio had no explanation for the two versions of the same letter.
"We may have had another conversation; I don't remember exactly," he said.
Mr. Tiberio also said it is wrong to say that the boat line is selling the high-speed ferry concept. "I'm getting tired of saying this: It's not about high speed. It's about comparing what we are doing with what can be done."
The boat line is now planning to hold a two-day symposium on high-speed ferries on June 14 and 15.
The service model is aimed at developing a 10-year strategic plan for the boat line.
At an SSA board meeting last week, Mr. Tiberio said two key elements of the service model would be dropped: a proposal to shift a sizable portion of freight traffic onto barges, and a proposal to replace all three ferries on the Nantucket run with a single multipurpose high-speed ferry.
Mr. Tiberio cited the overwhelming opposition on Nantucket as the reason for ending the futuristic high-speed ferry plan, but there was little explanation for the decision to eliminate barging from the model.
This week he said the decision is rooted simply in a lack of interest from shippers. "The industry is not going to voluntarily begin to ship product by barge unless there is an advantage for them," he said.
With no additional barging for freight, Mr. Tiberio said the discussion now shifts to New Bedford. "I think the board is going to have to deal with this in terms of New Bedford, and clearly that has been the alternative," he said.
The boat line is contracting with a private carrier to operate a pilot freight program between New Bedford and the Vineyard. The pilot program recently began its second year of service. Last year the service lost $1.2 million.
"The question becomes, can technology play any other role?" Mr. Tiberio said.
This week a Barnstable state legislator bluntly condemned the concept of putting a multipurpose high-speed ferry on the Nantucket run. "High-speed boats of this size are an unproven technology. . . . I believe this latest proposal is further evidence that the Steamship Authority has badly lost its moorings and focus of its original mission. It is in bad need of being reeled back to reality and respectability," wrote Barnstable Rep. Demetrius Atsalis in a letter sent to SSA board chairman J.B. Riggs Parker.
The full text of the letter is published on the editorial pages of this morning's Gazette.
Meanwhile, inside the Steamship Authority there now appears to be a headlong rush toward incorporating high-speed ferries into the system. As the futuristic high-speed ferry plan for Nantucket fades, the stage now shifts to New Bedford, where there are clear plans on deck to replace the ferry Schamonchi with some kind of high-speed vessel. The SSA bought the Schamonchi for $1.4 million in a surprise move last January. The decision was hailed as an important business move, but it was later revealed that the ferry is expected to lose a minimum of $500,000 this summer. Boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson said the loss could be as high as $1 million.
The Schamonchi purchase and expected operating loss this year contributed directly to the need for a mid-season fare increase, approved by the board last week. The fare increase takes effect June 1.
And if high-speed ferries are the main melody, the harmony that accompanies it is promotion. The Steamship Authority has launched a major promotional drive for the Schamonchi, including the use of billboards and newspaper advertising. The service model emphasizes that the Schamonchi marketing will target only the existing customer base, but Mr. Tiberio admitted this week that it is nearly impossible to separate general promotion from marketing to existing customers.
"We're not out there trying to create new customers . . . but well, that's the tradeoff. You have to be out there. If you're not out there promoting it, you won't get the customers," he said.
A new billboard to promote the Schamonchi went up on Route 195 in Fall River last week, and another one is planned for the other side of the highway near the Seekonk-East Providence line. A billboard promoting the Nantucket high-speed passenger ferry Flying Cloud will go up on Route 93 next month.
Mr. Tiberio and Vineyard SSA member J.B. Riggs Parker have been front and center on the Schamonchi promotion. Last Friday both Mr. Parker and Mr. Tiberio rode the inaugural run of the Schamonchi along with New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire. Mr. Tiberio presented Mr. Leontire with a plaque that said, "By George, We've Arrived in New Bedford."
On Wednesday afternoon this week Mr. Tiberio and Mr. Parker again traveled to New Bedford for another promotional event on board the Schamonchi.
The growing promotion of the Islands by the boat line appears to be at odds with a position adopted by the chambers of commerce on both Islands in recent years - the chambers do not promote the Islands in the peak summer season because there is already so much overcrowding.
Mr. Tiberio said he believes the promotion is not harmful because it is aimed at passengers and not visitors who bring cars. "This is all geared toward the walk-on passenger and getting people out of their cars; that's what it's all about," he said.
Marketing director Gina Barboza said yesterday that the boat line has spent about $30,000 promoting the Schamonchi this year. The total cost of the billboards on Route 195 will be $39,000 for the summer. The cost of the Flying Cloud billboard on Route 93 is $48,000.
Mr. Tiberio said it is important to remember that the goal of the service model is to find ways to contain rising costs at the boat line.
"The issues are on the table - are we going to just sit here and not try to make any efficiencies? If people want to accept that and accept that costs are going to go up, well, then they will," he said.