NANTUCKET - - The people of Nantucket had their crack at the podium this week, turning out more than 150 strong to urge a special governor's ferry task force to protect the Steamship Authority and their lifeline.
"The rate-payers of the Islands are not responsible for reviving the economy of New Bedford. Folks, the Steamship Authority is not an entitlement program," declared Steve Tornovish, a member of the SSA financial advisory board from Nantucket.
"Who is going to pay for future deficits caused by SSA operations? Who will pay for the future fast ferries? Certainly not Islanders who are already paying 25 per cent more for the basic cost of living than people who live on the mainland," said Penny Dey, a board member of the Nantucket Sustainable Development Corp.
"Double the fuel, double the crew, double the weather conditions and cancellations? Where do we fit in this so-called plan for the future? They see us all as millionaires who can just simply switch taxicabs and go somewhere else. Please put a human face on this issue," said Nat Lowell, a Nantucket trucker.
"Let us be careful what we wish for," warned Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman. "Is there any reason for the mission of the Steamship Authority to be changed? My answer is no. Is there any reason to change the governing structure of the Steamship Authority? Again, my answer is no," she added.
Like New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire in his own hometown last week, Mrs. Grossman drew sustained applause from the overflow crowd that jammed into the second floor courtroom in the Nantucket town hall.
The public hearing was held on Wednesday night. It was the second of four consecutive public sessions sponsored by the governor's ferry task force. The first hearing was held in New Bedford last week and saw a huge turnout of people who want to open up full ferry service between New Bedford and the two Islands.
Last night it was time for the first Island counterpoint on the complicated subject of whether to alter the public boat line that has served the Islands for 41 years. A full moon hung low in the eastern sky over the Nantucket harbor as an array of island residents trooped across narrow cobblestone streets and into the brick town hall.
The 11-member ferry task force is chaired by the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge. The task force includes one member from each Island, one member from Cape Cod and two members from New Bedford plus five members appointed by an array of state agencies.
This week nine members of the task force were present.
Judge Kass's distinctive, inquiring style has set the tone at the hearings, and on Wednesday he began the session a few minutes early for the second week in a row.
At the outset Tim Soverino, the chairman of the Nantucket selectmen, asked the task force to respect the status quo.
"The Steamship Authority has evolved for its carriers and its customers, and it has evolved out of necessity to be financially responsible. Now there is a new dynamic at work and it is the dynamic of power. I would ask that you consider the proud tradition that the Steamship Authority has had by providing service to the Islands," Mr. Soverino said.
Judge Kass questioned Mr. Soverino about his meaning.
"Do you understand we are likely to point the evolution in various directions?" he said.
Nantucket speakers told the task force that they see no need to change the public boat line, and they spoke about their economic ties with the town of Barnstable, where island residents spend money on everything from paper towels to medical services.
The economic discussion strayed repeatedly to the connection between the cost of shipping goods and the high cost of living on the Island.
Using a box a Kleenex as a kind of classroom example, Judge Kass tried to trace to cost of the product from the mainland to the island. The mock exercise saw no clear conclusion. Nantucket Chamber of Commerce president John Sweeney said the cost of freight is not the sole factor that affects the cost of goods on the Islands. "A business owner looks at all costs," said Mr. Sweeney, who is an island banker. "And costs are extremely high - the cost of labor, the cost of real estate, it's not just a matter of tacking on the cost of freight," he said.
More than once, task force members raised the subject of the pilot freight program between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
Judge Kass said the schedule for the pilot program appears to be problematic. "Might the Steamship Authority consider changing the schedule? It's hard to think that someone coming from someplace other than the north wouldn't want to be spared the ride back and forth over the bridges," Judge Kass told Mrs. Grossman. "It's much longer by sea," she replied. "But it's a very agreeable ferry crossing. And it's a wretched drive," returned the judge, who traveled to Nantucket on the ferry Eagle to attend the evening meeting.
"I think the pilot program is flawed and Falmouth has a legitimate concern with traffic. And I think New Bedford made a very cogent case last week," declared Tom Cahir, a former state representative who was appointed to the task force by the state transportation department.
New Bedford Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz and his city solicitor George Leontire attended the session, and at one point Judge Kass interrupted the meeting to recognize their presence in the front row of the packed meeting room.
The hearing revealed growing confusion between the issues being addressed by the task force and the ambitious new service model unveiled recently by the SSA board of governors. Calling the service model "a fantasy plan," Nantucket resident Curtis Barnes said: "It looks like $100 million worth of new services. Great idea, but if you're going to spend all that money, don't make us pay for it," he said.
Judge Kass steered the discussion away from the service model more than once, but he did respond to Mr. Barnes.
"I find myself put off by talk about fantasy schemes," he said, adding: "I would like someone running the authority to think very large. I don't think someone should be condemned for thinking large."
Daniel Flynn, the Vineyard member of the task force, was vocal throughout the session.
He asked several Nantucket residents if they believed the ferry issues are different between the two Islands.
Patty Hanley, a Barnstable resident who commutes to Nantucket to work two jobs, supplied the answer.
"Where we do converge with the Vineyard is in our concern that we will be asked to foot the bill for an unsuccessful New Bedford run," she said.
Mr. Flynn also warmly praised Mrs. Grossman for her leadership. "I have always admired the way that you and your husband Bernie [the late Bernard Grossman] have spoken passionately for the Island of Nantucket and also Martha's Vineyard," he said.
The task force holds a public hearing next Thursday night on Cape Cod in the Mashpee High School. The hearing begins at 7:30 p.m. The final hearing will be held on the Vineyard on Feb. 22.