Boat Line Governors Hear Cold Truth About Money Squeeze in Years Ahead
By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer
NANTUCKET — After seven months of chasing a futuristic service model amid visions of multi-million-dollar high-speed ferries, Steamship Authority governors learned the cold truth yesterday: If replacing the ferry Islander is a top priority, there will be no more money for large capital projects in the next six years.
This means no money to rebuild the Oak Bluffs terminal, no money to refurbish the Eagle and the Nantucket — and no money to buy a new high-speed ferry for the recently established route between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
“It becomes kind of a simple task, if the number one priority is the Islander. There is no other money for large capital projects,” said boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson.
“Replacing the Islander has risen to the top. She has become the number one priority and we’ve got to lock in the capital dollars,” said Armand Tiberio, outgoing general manager of the SSA.
The comments came during the monthly boat line meeting on Nantucket yesterday.
Among other business, Mr. Lamson was named the acting general manager of the Steamship Authority by a unanimous vote of the board. He will move temporarily into the top post at the SSA on Sept. 14 when Mr. Tiberio leaves to take another job.
Mr. Tiberio drew applause from the board and members of the audience for his work over the last six years.
The meeting also marked a moment when dreams collided with reality. Mr. Tiberio and Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker continued to expound on their vision of new technology for the boat line, while Mr. Lamson bluntly sketched a six-year capital budget with nothing left over after the 50-year-old Islander is replaced with a new ferry.
“This is a pretty sobering document if you really look at it — the only thing we are going to be able to do between now and 2009 is replace the Islander,” declared Robert O’Brien, a member of the boat line board from Barnstable who has a voice but no vote.
“We are going to have to find some creative ways to get revenues — and not from the Islanders,” said Nantucket governor Grace Grossman.
Mr. Lamson’s capital improvement plan is for the years 2003 through 2007; a separate capital plan for 2002 will be presented later.
With no increase in the $50 million bond limit and no other state or federal funding, Mr. Lamson said the boat line can expect to replace the Islander at a cost of some $22 million in the year 2005. All other capital spending projects will be frozen until 2008, including refurbishments on the Nantucket and the Eagle. An $8 million high-speed passenger ferry and a $12 million mid-speed freight vessel for the New Bedford run were described by Mr. Tiberio as “unfunded projects” in the capital plan.
Mr. Lamson’s capital plan stood in contrast with a memorandum from Mr. Tiberio wrapping up a seven-month discussion about a new service model for the boat line.
The service model was aimed at reducing costs and reducing traffic in Woods Hole and Barnstable through the development of the New Bedford port and the development of more high-speed ferry service.
Mr. Tiberio and Mr. Parker said yesterday that the goals are unchanged. “The principle of using technology is still on the table,” Mr. Parker said.
But Mr. Lamson said the cost-saving assumptions in the service model never panned out. “As we got further along in developing the assumptions, the cost savings started to disappear and it became the same cost, so why go down that road,” he said.
Held in the Nantucket high school, the meeting was attended by some 60 people, including a handful of Vineyard residents. Mr. Parker and Mrs. Grossman were the only voting members present, as there is still no Falmouth member after the resignation of Edward DeWitt last month. Mary Pat Flynn, chairman of the Falmouth selectmen, attended the meeting and Mr. Parker invited her to participate in the discussion alongside board members.
The meeting included discussion about licensing fees, changes in the operating schedules for the coming year and the executive search for a new general manager.
In the treasurer’s report, Mr. Lamson had more sobering news. Net operating income was down through the month of July, and for the second straight month Mr. Lamson said the drop can be tracked to unbudgeted expenses in connection with the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi.
The boat line bought the Schamonchi for $1.7 million in January. Operating losses on the ferry are expected to range between $600,000 and $900,000 this year.
Mr. Parker, who masterminded the Schamonchi purchase, said expenses are up in connection with other ferries as well. “I just want to make a point that it’s not exclusively the Schamonchi,” he said. But Mr. Lamson said the Schamonchi is the main source of the problem.
“Those expenses are reducing our overall bottom line. Had it not been for the additional costs of the Schamonchi this year, there would have been a reduction of about $150,000 in maintenance expenses,” the treasurer said.
Mr. Parker also announced that an August 28 forum is now planned on the Vineyard to discuss the service model. Mr. Tiberio said he will recommend replacing the Schamonchi with a trial high-speed passenger ferry.
“You can do the studies; you can look at the numbers, but what you need to do is a demonstration run,” Mr. Tiberio said.
Mr. Tiberio pointed to the high-speed passenger ferry between Nantucket and Hyannis as an example of a pilot program that later grew into a successful service.
But Nantucket legislative liaison Tim Madden cautioned against direct comparisons with Nantucket.
“The Vineyard people really have to look at this and discuss it. Before we got the fast ferry for Nantucket, we voted on it at a town meeting,” Mr. Madden said. “I believe that the reason for the purchase of the Schamonchi was to eliminate competition. And if that is true, then the goal has been achieved. The next goal is for the Vineyard people to decide.”
Mr. Parker interrupted Mr. Madden in testy tones. “This is a Vineyard matter, Mr. Madden,” he said.
“I understand that Mr. Parker, and I think it is important that the people on the Vineyard discuss it and have it laid out for them what the costs are going to be. Because the ultimate decision is going to be the ticket price,” Mr. Madden returned.
At the conclusion of the meeting Miles Carpenter, longtime Vineyard Haven resident and respected waterfront businessman, spoke eloquently about what he described as a palpable change of boat line tone and position.
“The only reason we are here is because there are two Islands. And the only reason the Islands are important is because people live on them — plain, ordinary people,” Mr. Carpenter began. “I’ve seen two things happen, and both in the last year. I have seen a growing division between the Vineyard and Nantucket and this disturbs me because we must be united. It seems to me that we should be playing up not our differences, but our similarities.”
Mr. Carpenter concluded: “The image of the Steamship Authority has never been lower on Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. and Mrs. Year-Round Islander feel they are being cut off from this organization and they are being handed these things in an arbitrary manner. I think you need to provide some means of dealing with human beings on a day-to-day basis. There has got to be better communication between Mr. and Mrs. Year-Round Islander.”