Vineyard Addresses Task Force


The governor's ferry task force had a three-and-a-half hour lesson in local politics, economics, transit systems, self-governance and the cost of butter last night when some 300 Vineyard residents turned out for the final public hearing of the now-celebrated fact-finding committee.

"Most of our year-round constituents are middle-class working families, and the Steamship Authority is their lifeline to the mainland," declared West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell.

"The economics of Island life are very real to us. And there is a great difference between what is possible with today's technology and what is practical or cost effective," said county manager Carol Borer.

"To say that we are not doing anything as an Island to fight traffic increases is simply false. We are committed to reducing auto and freight traffic, and we encourage you to take an even-handed approach," said Oak Bluffs selectman Michael Dutton.

"I'd say the people of Martha's Vineyard are well represented by their selectmen," returned the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge who is chairman of the task force.

It was the fourth and final public hearing for the task force, which also held hearings in New Bedford, on Nantucket and on Cape Cod. The hearing was held in the Performing Arts Center at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.

The 11-member task force was appointed by Gov. Paul Cellucci last summer after he killed a state bill to break apart the 41-year-old public boat line. The task force is studying an array of ferry issues, including the subject of New Bedford as an alternate port. The task force report is due April 15.

The hearing last night ran far longer than any of the three previous hearings, and still some who had planned to speak did not get the chance. Several speakers were long-winded, especially at the outset of the meeting. Later on, Judge Kass began to cut short comments that were obviously repetitious.

Vineyard Steamship Authority governor J.B. Riggs Parker led off with a statement that was notable for its eloquence but less clear in its central message.

Mr. Parker underscored the recent decision by the boat line to buy the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi. "Running the Schamonchi to New Bedford in the season is a sound business decision for the Vineyard service, not a political accommodation," he said.

He alluded to the new service model now under discussion in the port communities.

"The world is embracing high-speed ferries and discarding the high-cost heavy metal when long distance is involved. Fast ferries fascinate planners and politicians, who get out their atlases and pocket calculators and draw lines from faraway places," Mr. Parker said.

He warned the task force against the temptation of state subsidies. "They are like chocolate, hard to give up and they spoil your appetite for hard work," Mr. Parker said.

And he urged the task force to leave the Island control intact on the boat line board: "The lifeline to the Islands must be controlled by the Islands. Only the Islands understand their own needs. Only the Islands, and their visitors, pay the fares," he said.

Tony Souza, a member of the task force from New Bedford, questioned Mr. Parker about the decision to buy the Schamonchi, especially in light of the fact that the boat line has projected that the ferry will lose between $600,000 and $900,000 this summer.

"Why would the Steamship Authority choose to lose three quarters of a million dollars?" Mr. Souza said in part.

Mr. Parker downplayed the projected loss, calling it a "worst-case scenario."

"We didn't intend for it to come out to the public as a statement of intended loss. We want to build [the Schamonchi operation] and we expect to make it work - that's why we got into it," he said.

Art Flathers, a Tisbury resident who follows SSA affairs closely, handed the task force a raft of boat line statistics. Mr. Flathers said car traffic on boat line ferries from the mainland has actually decreased by about three per cent in the last few years. Car traffic from the Islands to the mainland is on the increase, he said. "The Islanders go to the mainland to spend money," Mr. Flathers said, drawing applause. He advocated barging as a more economical way to haul freight.

"I think you could have done it on the back of an envelope that the pilot freight program [between New Bedford and the Vineyard] was not going to work," Mr. Flathers said. "And the same envelope could have been used for the Schamonchi," he added.

He was not the only critic of the Schamonchi purchase.

"That's another bad decision," declared Island resident Robert Lamb, a native of Scotland and marine engineer who criticized a long list of boat line business decisions. Mr. Lamb said people will not want to pay higher fares to travel from New Bedford to the Vineyard, when they can drive to Woods Hole and pay less. "I don't think we need a fast ferry to come from New Bedford - people are not stupid," he said.

Most, but not all, of the speakers expressed strong skepticism about opening up a new port, because of the impact on fares for Island people who use the ferries. The sentiment for keeping Island control on the SSA board of governors was even stronger.

"We strongly favor the present weighting of the SSA board," said Mrs. Mitchell, who spoke for the 28-member Dukes County Selectman's Association. Asked by Judge Kass if she would favor adding more voting seats to the board as long as the Islands kept control, Mrs. Mitchell said she personally would support a voting seat for Barnstable, but not for New Bedford.

The speakers were diverse. Daniel Greenbaum, a longtime seasonal resident and transportation planner, used charts and statistics to show that opening up a port from New Bedford will have little or no impact on traffic congestion on Cape Cod.

"While there may well be valid reasons to consider New Bedford service, the promise of substantial traffic relief to the Cape is not one of them," he said.

Angela Gompert, the executive director of the Martha's Vineyard transit authority, described the burgeoning Vineyard transit system and urged the task force to consider impacts on the system as it develops its recommendations.

Bill Weibrecht, the manager of the Martha's Vineyard Airport, spoke about the growing air freight traffic on the Island. Elderly resident Nellie Mendenhall spoke about the importance of the ferry for Island seniors, and school committee chairman Tim Dobel spoke about the importance of the ferry in the lives of school children.

And just when it appeared that the testimony had begun to wind down, Clarence A. (Trip) Barnes 3rd, a longtime local trucker, brought the meeting to life with his gritty portrayal of life as trucker on a rural Island.

"Reduce freight, reduce cars, does that mean we are all going to lose 10 pounds?" Mr. Barnes said. "You should talk to the trucking people who live on the Island - not the satellite companies - but the people who live here and are doing trucking. It's a seven-day-a-week business and right now it feels like everything has gone out of control," he said.

Mr. Barnes had the immediate attention of Judge Kass.

"You really are speaking to issues that are on the minds of the task force: what are the costs of running freight? I am glad you spoke up and it's high time that you have," he said.

" We are on the outside looking in," Mr. Barnes replied.

Judge Kass looked at the line of people waiting their turn to speak, and said: "We may have to talk to you again, Mr. Barnes."