Transportation Chairman Speaks

This will not be a rush job.

That was the word yesterday from Rep. Joseph C. Sullivan about the new legislation now under consideration to dramatically change the Steamship Authority board of governors.

"This is a serious issue that needs to be studied and evaluated in a serious way, and it will be," said Mr. Sullivan, a Braintree Democrat who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation in the Massachusetts legislature. "I feel confident that we will have a thorough review of this legislation. I think there will be many areas for discussion. I don't see us acting on this before the summer recess [in August]. I would say fall at the earliest, and this could spill over into the following spring," he added.

A public hearing is set for next Thursday on the legislation filed by acting Gov. Jane Swift; the bill calls for changing the SSA board of governors by adding a voting member from Barnstable and a voting member from New Bedford. Hosted by the joint committee on transportation, the hearing begins at 10:30 a.m. on July 12 in the Barnstable town hall.

In an interview with the Gazette yesterday morning, Mr. Sullivan talked about the ongoing debate on Beacon Hill over Steamship Authority issues.

In the last two years a number of bills have been filed by state legislators proposing an array of changes to the public boat line that serves as the lifeline to the Islands.

But Mr. Sullivan said yesterday that this bill is somewhat different. The bill was crafted by the ferry task force appointed by former Gov. Paul Cellucci last year to study SSA issues. The task force was led by the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge.

"This bill is filed by the governor and it has the influence and stamp of the governor's office. This is essentially Judge Kass's recommendation," Mr. Sullivan said.

He said he expects Judge Kass to testify at the hearing and also someone representing the acting governor.

"I don't prejudge it and this will be an important discussion," Mr. Sullivan said.

He also said committee members are interested in the views of Island residents on the proposed changes to the boat line board.

"That is very important and I encourage their participation," Mr. Sullivan said.

Mr. Sullivan said the growing rift between the Vineyard and Nantucket on SSA issues had not escaped his attention, and he chose his words carefully on the subject.

"Shall I call it the Riggs Parker-Grace Grossman dynamic? I think that Riggs Parker has a certain business acumen, and I also understand Grace's long history with the Steamship Authority that is so appreciated by many people, including me. I don't like the idea that there has been a separation between the two Islands," he said.

He also had warm words of praise for former Vineyard boat line governor Ronald H. Rappaport.

"I miss Ron Rappaport - he was a passionate advocate for the Vineyard," Mr. Sullivan said.

The seasoned state representative said he believes that the mood has shifted on Beacon Hill when it comes to boat line affairs.

"I do think that in the last year we have been able to quiet the rhetoric. There was a time when it was a subject that was full of emotion, and it's important to get back to the facts. The city of New Bedford has been much more communicative and and the Steamship Authority has taken some positive steps. They are continuing the pilot freight program for a second year, and I believe that there is a better understanding of the Steamship Authority issues by many of the members. Time has offered us some experience and history, and that makes for a better understanding," he said.

He continued:

"I would be inclined to allow the Steamship Authority to work in a way that they can self-govern, that is my preference. But I will reiterate that this hearing is on a different level now. The [Swift] administration has taken a formal position that they feel New Bedford should play a greater role. This has the stamp of the Swift administration and it has a different course.

"And having said all of that, I will also say that the primary focus of the Steamship Authority is to provide service to the two Islands, and that should be the focus absolutely. There are a lot of questions we are going to ask on the twelfth [of July]. The task force is going to be asked to answer questions about their approach."

Mr. Sullivan has been coming to the Vineyard in the summer for 35 years; his parents began renting a cottage on Chappaquiddick in the 1960s, and bought a house in the mid-1970s. He comes to the Vineyard for an extended visit with his family in July and again in August every year. "I have a deep appreciation for the Island and a love for it as well as for its people - this is a special place and it needs the Islanders to continue to be engaged on these issues that are so important to them," he said.

Mr. Sullivan said Islanders should not view the state legislature as an intimidating political force. "Intimidation - that is not a role at all that I am playing, nor do I believe there is any clandestine activity going on among others. I do think it is wise for the Steamship Authority to look at all its options, and it is also true that the credibility of establishing a third port still needs to be finalized," he said.

Mr. Sullivan praised the work of Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington, especially on Steamship Authority issues. Mr. Turkington is a member of the transportation committee.

"Eric is extremely competent - he cares deeply about the Islands - I just saw him last night in the Fourth of July parade," Mr. Sullivan said. He concluded:

"Eric also cares deeply about the mission of the Steamship Authority. I know he has been caught in some crossfire between Falmouth and the Islands, but he is always fair and reasoned and he brings a level of intellect to this discussion that is needed. I have great respect and appreciation for him."