County Leaders Support Delay on Fast Ferry Plan
By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer
A bitterly divided Dukes County Commission voted to join the collective voice of other Vineyard officials this week - and ask the Vineyard representative to the Steamship Authority to throttle down a plan to develop high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
The vote was 4-3 to endorse the letter sent by the All-Island Selectmen's Association to Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker last week.
"It's moving too rapidly. I think it would be appropriate for us to endorse what the All-Island selectmen did last week," said county commissioner E.B. Collins at the regular meeting of the county commission on Wednesday night. Mr. Collins is a former boat line governor.
The county commission is the appointing authority for Mr. Parker.
Last week a large group of Island officials - including selectmen, county commissioners and members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission - voted unanimously to write a letter to Mr. Parker, asking him to take no action on the fast ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard for at least one month.
"[We are] requesting that as the Martha's Vineyard representative to the Steamship Authority board of governors, you postpone taking any vote on the New Bedford fast ferry proposal specifically and on the service model proposals in general," wrote Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck in a letter to Mr. Parker.
The move by Mr. Collins came at the end of the regular county commission meeting on Wednesday night.
County commissioner Roger Wey agreed with Mr. Collins.
County commissioner Robert Sawyer chimed in with his own agreement, pointing to a public hearing that was hosted on the Vineyard three weeks ago by the Steamship Authority and attended by some 300 people. Mr. Sawyer noted that the public had been allowed very little time to speak, because most of the meeting had been taken up by a boat line presentation. Mr. Sawyer suggested that the county host more forums in the weeks ahead to allow more public discussion.
"In my opinion the appointed representative should be listening to the Vineyard community," Mr. Sawyer said.
County commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. had another view. Mr. Jason had spoken out repeatedly in angry tones throughout the earlier part of the meeting during a complicated discussion about a controversial contract between the county and the hospital.
When Mr. Collins made his motion under new business toward the end of the meeting, Mr. Jason flared again. He pointed to an earlier vote by the selectmen and the county commission to support the exploration of high-speed ferry service to the Vineyard.
"We voted on this. What has transpired to change your mind?" Mr. Jason demanded
Mr. Collins calmly stood his ground.
"I appreciate the need to try to get information before we start making decisions, but I just agree that things should slow down," he said.
County commissioner Dan Flynn disagreed, calling the vote by the All-Island selectmen inappropriate and issuing a vehement defense of Mr. Parker.
"Ever since Mr. Parker has been appointed as our representative, we have been sticking our nose into everything he has done," Mr. Flynn said. "The All-Island selectmen don't appoint the representative to the Steamship Authority and I think they are sticking their nose in where they don't belong. We ought to just let the appointee do his job. I don't think we should tell him when to vote, when not to vote or when to spit, when not to spit," he added.
"I think all we are doing is simply asking Mr. Parker not to take a vote for 30 days," Mr. Collins replied.
County commissioner John Alley agreed.
"There is no reason that we as county commissioners cannot express our opinion on this subject. Personally I think the process seems to have gotten a little far-flung, and I would like to hear more before the Steamship Authority governor commits himself to this project," said Mr. Alley.
"It was just a vote to slow the process down. The Steamship Authority affects all of us," Mr. Wey said.
Mr. Jason launched into a fresh speech supporting Mr. Parker.
"This guy has been open and he has presented us with the facts. To suggest that we just want to slow it down reminds me of ‘just say no.' I don't see where there is any advantage in not moving forward with the service model," Mr. Jason said.
Mr. Flynn warned the other county commissioners that any slowdown could produce retaliation from New Bedford city officials.
"The ramifications for slowing down has a snowball and a domino effect, and I think we are going to find out very quickly the impact of this reckless resolution," Mr. Flynn said.
"What do you mean, a reckless resolution? Are we going to be intimidated by New Bedford?" Mr. Wey shot back.
"We all should be looking at this from the point of view of the Vineyard, and not from the point of view of New Bedford," Mr. Alley said.
Mr. Flynn called the remark naive.
"I do believe that it is naive for us to believe that what we do or say over here is not affected by New Bedford. There is a difference between being intimidated and being realistic. If we aren't careful, this Steamship Authority as we know it will become a very different body," Mr. Flynn said.
Mr. Alley leaned around the table to look directly at Mr. Flynn. "Is that a threat?" he said.
In the end the vote was 4-3 to echo the vote of the selectmen last week, with Mr. Alley, Mr. Collins, Mr. Sawyer and Mr. Wey voting yes. Mr. Jason, Mr. Flynn and county commissioner Leslie Leland voted no.
The twin votes by the All-Island Selectmen's Association and the county commission come as the public boat line is poised at the threshold of potentially huge change. Mr. Parker and outgoing SSA general manager Armand Tiberio have been actively pushing a plan to expand ferry service to the Vineyard by opening up the port of New Bedford and adding high-speed passenger service.
Three days before he left to take another job, Mr. Tiberio this week released a cursory feasibility report on high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
Among other things, the 20-page report concludes that high-speed ferry service is feasible, but the report includes no financial analysis or financial information.
The bulk of the report is wrapped around data about the availability of high-speed ferries for lease. Mr. Tiberio found two ferries that are available for lease, but the report does not say how much a lease might cost.
The report also includes information about proposed schedules for high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard; the same information is contained in a 50-page information packet distributed by Mr. Tiberio at a recent public hearing on the Vineyard.
"This report is limited to operational and logistical issues and considerations and is not intended to suggest an opinion on whether the project should in fact go forward," Mr. Tiberio concludes.
The report also includes a summary of a recent customer survey done on Vineyard-bound ferries. The results of the survey are mixed: about half the people responding said they would use high-speed service and about half said they would not. A large percentage of the people responding said they did not want to pay higher fares for the service.