Clash Over Fast Ferries

Steamship Authority leaders clashed openly yesterday over whether to develop multi-million-dollar high-speed ferry service from the port of New Bedford to the Vineyard — and how the public boat line is going to pay for it.

"This high-speed opportunity from New Bedford has the potential to be the most profitable run in the whole Steamship Authority. It would be the fastest way to the Island for the tourist trade, and we have a duty to explore the ways that potential can be realized," declared Falmouth boat line governor Edward DeWitt.

"If it's marketed right, if it's advertised right, if it's sold right, it might work, but we won't know until we put it out there and test it a little bit," said SSA general manager Armand Tiberio.

"This may be a good business decision for some, but my concern is financial — I think for the Island it's a disaster. We're spending money like drunken sailors and somewhere along the line we have got to look at what we can afford," countered Nantucket boat line governor Grace Grossman.

"If we get into this, we have to be able to see our way clear to buying a new vessel — and I don't know that we have the money at this point," said Barnstable governor Robert O'Brien.

"I think you're both right. The financial concern is there, but the general manager is right that we've got to test the market to find out," said Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker.

The comments came during the regular monthly boat line meeting held on the Vineyard yesterday morning. The meeting included a discussion about testing a high-speed summer ferry operation between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

Throughout the meeting, Mr. Parker held his cards close to the vest, repeatedly calling for more facts and information, but never expressing a clear position on the issues.

His representation of the Vineyard was a subject for comment.

"I'd like to see someone speak for the Vineyard," said Mrs. Grossman in a thinly veiled jab at Mr. Parker at the outset of the meeting.

"I hope you listen to all the people of the Vineyard and not just a few," said longtime Edgartown businessman Robert J. Carroll in comments direct at Mr. Parker.

"I feel like we don't have a representative for the Island, and I am sorry about that. We have nobody to speak up for us," Tisbury resident Ingrid Robinson told Mr. Parker.

Mrs. Robinson and others had words of praise for Mrs. Grossman, who has been an outspoken advocate for the Islands in recent months.

"I'd like to thank Grace Grossman for her sane voice in the wilderness," Mrs. Robinson said.

"Grace has done a great job, and many times I wish you were representing us," said Mr. Carroll.

"I want to stick with Grace because she is outweighed by eight men," said former Tisbury selectman Cora Medeiros.

Held in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, the meeting was attended by about 50 people. Only a handful of elected officials were present.

Much of the three-hour meeting was spent in discussion about the development of both freight and high-speed passenger ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

Mr. Tiberio asked the boat line board for permission to explore the possibility of both replacing the pilot freight program with a permanent Steamship Authority freight program out of New Bedford, and also to explore a demonstration high-speed passenger ferry project out of New Bedford next summer.

The pilot freight program is in its second summer of operation with a contracted private carrier.

Mr. Tiberio said it may be time for the boat line to consider running its own freight program out of New Bedford.

He outlined a tentative plan to run three rounds trips a day between the state pier in New Bedford and the SSA pier in Vineyard Haven on weekdays between May and September next year. Under the proposed plan, the freight boat Katama would be put onto the New Bedford run, and the Sankaty would replace the Katama on the Vineyard run. This would reduce freight capacity on the Vineyard run because the Sankaty is smaller than the Katama. Mr. Tiberio said it may be necessary to develop some method for diverting truck traffic to New Bedford.

"The authority needs to develop a fair method of determining who is allowed to travel to the Islands from Cape Cod, and who is required to travel from New Bedford," he wrote in a staff summary.

Mr. Tiberio also said freight fares may be higher out of New Bedford than fares out of Woods Hole.

The second proposal calls for launching a pilot high-speed passenger ferry project out of New Bedford.

Mr. Tiberio said he would like to look into leasing a high-speed passenger ferry for the summer season next year to test the market. The high-speed ferry would replace the passenger ferry Schamonchi, which the SSA bought in January for $1.7 million.

Mr. Tiberio said the Schamonchi would likely remain idle during the high-speed test program, but Mr. DeWitt suggested that it could be used on the summer inter-Island run between Nantucket and the Vineyard.

Mrs. Grossman questioned the wisdom of paying $1.7 million for a boat and then leaving it idle.

"I'm glad we have so much money that we can throw away a boat," she said.

Throughout the meeting, Mrs. Grossman drove home her own basic themes: the mission of the boat line and the need for fiscal responsibility. At one point Mr. Tiberio said: "The Steamship Authority's responsibility is to serve all interests."

Mrs. Grossman shot back: "No it is not, it is to serve the people of the Islands."

She also said: "We're not rich; we're a public authority and we owe it to the public to spend our money wisely."

Several residents who attended the meeting questioned both the need for a New Bedford high-speed passenger ferry and also the pace of recent events at the boat line.

"Why are you moving so fast to put aside the Schamonchi and get a fast ferry? I think you need to take more time. I wish you would slow down," said Dick Sherman, a longtime resident who divides his time between Falmouth and Vineyard Haven.

"The point made by this audience is please slow down. More due diligence. We're all in this boat together," said Tisbury businessman Steve Bernier.

"Why do we need a fast ferry? Where is the demand? The only demand I see is coming from the people on the other side of the table," said Tisbury resident Marie Laursen. "There is no reason to be taking us down this road and making us pay for it," she added.

Mr. Tiberio said there is no rush.

"We wouldn't even be voting on this until next spring," he said.

The remark stood in stark contrast with a series of recent planning documents that call for a decision by the boat line in August on the New Bedford freight plan and also the new service model. High-speed passenger service from New Bedford is one element of the service model. August is typically the time when decisions are made on major spending projects, because this is when the budget for the coming year is put together.

Oak Bluffs resident Robert Iadiccico said the development of New Bedford ferry service has been dictated by Boston politicians.

"It's the price we pay to keep the state from gutting our Steamship Authority," he said. Mr. Iadiccico pressed Mr. Parker to agree with his point, and the Vineyard boat line governor demurred slightly.

"I am not a politician, I'm a businessman who is interested in gathering all the facts. But I can't disagree with some of what you've said," Mr. Parker replied.