A small circle of senior managers at the Steamship Authority last week quietly filed an application for some $2 million in federal grant money to help launch an $8 million high-speed passenger ferry operation between the Vineyard and New Bedford, the Gazette has learned.

The grant application underscores an increasingly bold behind-the-scenes plan by boat line leaders to develop high-speed ferry service between the mainland and the two Islands - with little or no public discussion.

There has been no public discussion among members of the Steamship Authority board about the high-speed ferry plan or the grant application. And two key senior managers - SSA attorney Steven Sayers and boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson - did not know about the application before it was filed.

The application was filed by electronic mail by SSA general manager Armand Tiberio and boat line planner Wesley Ewell last Friday. SSA engineer James Swindler also participated in the grant application. The application will go through the office of the Southeastern Massachusetts Regional Planning and Economic Development District. The application is for federal Ferry Boat Discretionary (FBD) funds under the federal TEA-21 grant program, but the project must first be approved by the Massachusetts Highway Department before it can be forwarded to federal transportation officials for review.

The boat line is applying for $2 million in federal funds - the maximum it can qualify for this year. The total cost of the project is estimated at $8 million. Titled New Bedford Fast Ferry, the project is aimed at replacing the passenger ferry Schamonchi with a 300-passenger high-speed ferry. The SSA bought the 20-year-old Schamonchi last January from owner Janet Thompson.

The grant application contains detailed statements about the commitment to develop high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard, and about a purported plan to use boat line bond money to help pay for it.

"The applicant . . . is committed to this project and able to finance it through the sale of bonds," the application states in part.

The application also declares that a design for the new boat has already been approved and is ready to go. "The design for the new vessel has been completed and approved, so a contract could be issued quickly for construction beginning before the end of 2001," the application says.

"The design is complete and approved by the Coast Guard so construction could begin very soon after the awarding of the grant," Mr. Ewell wrote in a cover letter that accompanied the grant application.

The grant application turned up this week during an examination by the Gazette of public records available in connection with the new SSA service model.

The examination has uncovered a number of discrepancies between public statements made by boat line leaders about the service model and the actual activity behind the scenes.

Yesterday Mr. Tiberio downplayed most of the statements in the grant application.

"It's just parameters that we are using; it's not critical what those parameters are. They [state and federal transportation officials] are just looking for a set of criteria and we are just trying to get our oar in the water to compete for the money. We can change the details later, and at the end of the day you are not going to be held to those details," Mr. Tiberio said.

The application paints a picture of dramatically increased ridership on the Schamonchi under new ownership by the boat line. "So far this year, daily traffic figures under the new ownership have approximately doubled those of the comparable time last year," the application says.

What the application does not state is that the Schamonchi had only been in service for one week when the "double" traffic statistics were recorded. Mr. Tiberio admitted that the statistics are based on the first four days of operation on the Schamonchi.

"That's all we had to go on," he said. "And I am not saying that four or five days worth of traffic is indicative of how the year is going to come out," he added.

The federal grant application says something quite different.

"The Steamship Authority expects this doubled level of traffic to continue because of improved equipment, service levels, scheduling and promotion. It also anticipates growth rates in the range of three to five per cent in future years," the application says.

Mr. Tiberio said he did not know where the growth projections came from.

He said the grant application does not necessarily mean a commitment to the project by the boat line.

"The application is not a final commitment on the part of the agency that they are going to proceed with it, but if the $2 million becomes available and the decision is made to go with this project, then bonds will have to be used," he said.

Later in the conversation Mr. Tiberio reversed himself and said a commitment had been made.

"There is a commitment; there has been a commitment that we would proceed at some point in time to improve the service there [in New Bedford]. We have put $150,000 [into the Schamonchi] to bring it up to our standards. The question is when do you make whole on the commitment," he said.

As for the statement that a final design has been approved, Mr. Tiberio said in fact no new design has been approved. He said the statement is a reference to the design used for the Flying Cloud, the high-speed passenger ferry that now runs between Hyannis and Nantucket.

"The design is patterned off the Flying Cloud - there is a design that has been approved; it's one that was built previously by this organization. This is envisioning a replication of the Flying Cloud," Mr. Tiberio said.

Federal transportation grant money was also used to help build the Flying Cloud.

"Did the board not approve the Flying Cloud? That is what this is referring to; it is referring to a vessel that has been built and the design has been approved," Mr. Tiberio said.

"The board has not given a final approval to this project," he added.

As for public discussion, Mr. Tiberio said it is usual procedure to file grant applications with no public discussion.

"Traditionally I have not taken these kinds of administrative matters to the board at this point - there have been about four or five others like this, like the grants for buses that we have gotten approved," he said.

Mr. Tiberio said he did discuss the grant application with members of the SSA board.

"I have discussed it probably with all of them," he said.

Yesterday Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman said she has had no discussion with Mr. Tiberio about the grant application.

"None whatsoever. This is the first time I have heard about it," Mrs. Grossman said.