Fast Ferry Sails Into Off Season

New Bedford Service Continues Through the Winter Months; Private Operators to Test New Vineyard Route

By IAN FEIN

Heading into uncharted waters, the New England Fast Ferry company shifted to its winter schedule this week, providing the Island's first year-round service to New Bedford since the final run of the Nobska on New Year's Eve, 1960.

Although it has yet to be determined whether a market exists for off-season travel between the Vineyard and the Whaling City, final numbers from the private company's first summer suggest that the seasonal fast ferry service is on solid ground. The fate of the conventional ferry is another story, however, as operators are already exploring a scaled-back schedule for next summer. In all likelihood, 2005 will be the end of the line for the slow boat.

"We feel as though we've had a very good reception by the public, and the fast ferry numbers speak to that," said Andrew P. Langlois, vice chairman and chief financial officer of both New England Fast Ferry and New Bedford Traditional Ferry, an affiliated company that operates the conventional service. "But unless there is significant improvement on the slow ferry passenger volume, it is not economic to continue that service past 2005."

The Steamship Authority, which lost substantial amounts of money running the Schamonchi on the New Bedford-Vineyard route, last year subcontracted the service to the private ferry consortium. The contract requires the private operators to provide monthly reports on ridership.

The overall service, combining both the fast and traditional ferries, carried 28,884 and 30,085 passengers in July and August this summer, while during the same months the year before the SSA carried 21,501 and 27,287 on the Schamonchi. The comparison is not straight apples-to-apples because the Schamonchi missed a substantial number of trips in July that year due to both weather and mechanical problems. Also, the fast ferry did not begin service until late June this year, so overall summer statistics do not compare neatly with previous years.

However, over the course of the summer the fast ferry clearly carried the most passengers on the route - carrying roughly three-fourths of all July passengers and almost four-fifths of those in August. The fast ferry M/V Whaling City Express carried 1,700 more passengers in August than in July, while the slower Portuguese Princess lost 500 riders. The fast ferry often reached capacity during peak-period trips.

"I think [the numbers] make us feel pretty good in the long run about the fast ferry; it did better than what we had expected," said Mr. Langlois. "We thought we had such a good product [in the fast ferry] that we in fact hurt the slow ferry, which unfortunately is also us," he added with a laugh.

After former Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker masterminded the purchase of the Schamonchi for $1.2 million in January 2001, the boat line lost an estimated $800,000 a year on the ferry. In an effort to cut its losses, just over a year ago the SSA licensed New England Fast Ferry to take over the route.

The venture became complicated when the boat line learned that the state anti-privatization law required that some conventional ferry service similar to the Schamonchi continue for at least a couple years. The SSA twice invited bids for the service, and both times the private ferry consortium, which had an economic interest in complying with the state law, submitted the only bid.

On top of its seven-year contract to run the fast ferry service through 2011, the ferry consortium signed a two-year contract for the conventional service, which the SSA agreed to subsidize at $250,000 per year. Now due to decreasing ridership on the slow boat, which ran from May 25 to Sept. 13, the private company is exploring whether it can cut back service next year and still remain in compliance with the state law.

"We had estimated that we would have about twice as many traditional ferry passengers as we had, and that we would just about break even," Mr. Langlois said. "But even with the subsidy, we lost money on the slow ferry."

The conventional boat will likely lose even more money next summer, when a second fast ferry is scheduled to go into service on May 15. The twin fast ferries will offer up to 10 daily trips between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

"I think next year will be a difficult year for us because the slow boat will still be operating: we'll have three boats on a route that probably only needs two," Mr. Langlois said. "But on the positive side, I think we had a good enough product this year that will let people make their plans with us for next summer."

New England Fast Ferry also hopes Islanders make plans to use the off-season service to New Bedford. Starting this week, the company scaled down its summer schedule of five daily trips (six on weekends) to three (four on weekends). The proposed winter schedule runs through May 15, although the company may alter it to meet demand, or lack thereof.

"All of these things are always a bit of trial," Mr. Langlois said. "There's no recent history of a year-round operating service [between New Bedford and the Vineyard] except for almost 50 years ago. We don't know for sure what will happen.

"We're trying to learn what works best for this winter season, and we're trying to make it more attractive, but at the end of the day we have to make money to cover the cost of the boat," he said. "We're going slowly and carefully and trying to be thoughtful in terms of what will attract your fellow Vineyarders."

Along with its winter schedule, this week the company launched a new "shopping rate" for Island residents. Through the end of the December, Islanders can ride the fast ferry for the off-season price of $32 round trip ($8 off the normal fare). For an additional $3 on select trips during the week, the company offers shuttle service to the Dartmouth Mall.

New England Fast Ferry is also promoting its year-round parking rates, which are substantially lower than those of the SSA. An annual pass to the enclosed and covered Elm street parking lot, half a mile from the New Bedford ferry dock and accessible by shuttle service, costs only $369 per year, while the SSA Woods Hole lot, currently at $550 per year, is now set to go up to $750 in 2005.

A big part of New England Fast Ferry's larger plan for the Vineyard-New Bedford route was to build a seamless public transportation infrastructure connecting the ferries to buses headed for New York or Boston. Mr. Langlois said the company is still working to coordinate the schedules, which have not matched up well.

Another setback for the service is the yet-to-be-completed passenger ferry terminal, originally scheduled to open early this summer. A revised plan called for the $1 million, 8,500-square-foot terminal to open by the end of September, but Mr. Langlois said this week that completion is still another month away. Mr. John A. Simpson, executive director of the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission, which oversees the terminal project, did not return repeated calls for comment.

Last month, New Bedford city officials learned they would miss out on $5 million in state funds they expected for renovations to the State Pier. The money was earmarked for structural work on the northeast corner of the pier, an area the ferries do not use, and so would not affect the terminal.

"The ferry terminal project will continue on track," said New Bedford city solicitor Matthew J. Thomas this week. "It would have been nice to have this money, no doubt about it. But the ferry terminal is not in any danger of falling or anything."