The impact of bringing more summer visitors to the Vineyard using high-speed ferry service from New Bedford, the tricky practice of carrying fuel on the boats, and the role that the public boat line plays in the lives of Islanders - these were all subjects for discussion at the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week.
"I don't think anybody can disagree that one of the major impacts to this Island is the Steamship Authority," said commission member Robert Zeltzer.
"I think the Steamship Authority has been very public in its presentations, but on the big issues it has been a dog and pony show. They say, ‘We are going to listen,' and then they barrel right ahead and do what they have already decided to do," said commission member Tristan Israel.
"I believe that the Steamship Authority and the decisions of the Steamship Authority can have an effect on the Island traffic and infrastructure - I wish that we could in fact work more closely with the Steamship Authority," concluded commission member Christina Brown.
"The Steamship Authority has asked and will continue to ask for you help," responded Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker.
It was a small sampling of the wide-ranging discussion that took place last week when the commission tackled the complicated subject of boat line issues. The discussion went on for nearly two hours and was the central agenda item at the regular meeting of the commission on Thursday night.
SSA affairs have been the main topic at a number of regional forums recently. Three weeks ago, the All-Island Selectmen's Association voted unanimously to ask Mr. Parker to delay any vote on a high-speed ferry project out of New Bedford. The following week the Dukes County commissioners followed suit, although the vote was not unanimous.
Last week the MVC took a slightly different tack, choosing instead to open up a broad discussion about the issues now surrounding the boat line. Mr. Parker attended the meeting.
Mr. Parker said at the outset that one of the most pressing problems at the boat line is the need to get fuel products off the boats. He also said the SSA has not been saving enough money.
"We've been living from paycheck to paycheck and not putting any money aside, and I don't think that can continue," Mr. Parker said.
But most of the discussion centered on the controversial plan to run high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
"I am hearing a lot of concern from people about the fast ferry. My concern is that we are barreling ahead and what's the rush? I think we are going to make decisions that we are going to regret. We need to listen to one another and if the sentiment is to not do something, then we need to respond to that sentiment," said Mr. Israel at the outset.
Mr. Parker denied that there is any push to establish high-speed ferry service, and he denied that the high-speed ferry plan will bring more visitors to the Vineyard.
"There is no push to make high-speed happen. It's an exploratory process, and it's not over yet. We haven't even got a boat yet to put on the route. But I believe if a boat was available it should be tried on a trial basis," Mr. Parker said, adding: "Will it bring extra passengers? There is no evidence to suggest that it would. The evidence from Nantucket suggests the opposite."
Mr. Parker pointed to the success of the Nantucket high-speed ferry service as a good predictor for success on the New Bedford route.
"That's a model that's available to the Steamship Authority. These are real figures on real boats on real routes to the Island," he said.
Mr. Zeltzer disagreed.
"High speed from New Bedford to the Vineyard is an apple. High speed from Hyannis to Nantucket is an orange and I don't think you can compare the two," Mr. Zeltzer said. He continued:
"I see the New Bedford ferry as an enormous expansion of foot traffic to the Island. If you have high-speed coming out of New Bedford with a lot of parking available, you are going to have to advertise it and it is going to mean an increase in people coming here. And this is not an elitist thing because I don't care where these people are coming from - it is going to mean more bodies coming here, and I look at the traffic backups on Beach Road and at Five Corners and I say, we can't handle it. I worry about this and we have to worry about this as a regional body. How much more can this rural infrastructure take?"
"That is a reasonable assumption, but you don't have any evidence. We don't know until we try it," Mr. Parker replied.
Mrs. Sibley questioned the study methods that will be used to test a new high-speed market out of New Bedford.
"How are you going to measure it? If you are going to run a test you don't just throw something out there and see what happens. What would you call a failure - or are you just going to wing it?" she said.
Mr. Parker reiterated the strategy behind the high-speed ferry plan: Encouraging short-term visitors to the Island to leave their cars behind. Mr. Parker has identified one-to-four-day visitors as the target group.
"It's a shorter trip [from New Bedford] and they can get there in a shorter time. And we can increase the amount of dedicated space on the boat for Islanders," he said.
The discussion strayed to the broader subject of regional planning and whether the commission can play a role in developing limits for the Island.
"What is the capacity of the Vineyard? I think the real problem is whether the Island allows itself to grow. If the Island allows itself to grow and expands its capacity to receive visitors - then they will come," Mr. Parker said.
Later the discussion returned to the subject of impact from more visitors.
"We have an infrastructure that will not support more people, more cars and more buses. Do we want to suddenly widen our roads and put in a bunch of traffic lights?" Mr. Zeltzer said.
"If you don't want to keep the one-to-four-day cars off the Island and you don't want to create extra space for Islanders on the boats - then I would say there is no point in the Steamship Authority even trying a high-speed ferry," Mr. Parker said.
"I don't believe for a minute that getting people out of their cars and bringing them here as foot passengers will reduce traffic on the Island. If these people are here for more than 24 hours, then they will rent cars, or if they are residents they will have cars here," said Mrs. Sibley.
Commission member James Athearn said the public boat line is linked to the central mission of the MVC. "The Martha's Vineyard Commission has the unique charge of protecting the character of the Island. The extent to which the Steamship Authority makes it more easy to come and go is the same extent to which the character can be eroded," he said.