SSA Public Hearing Set Tuesday at Crucial Stage In Planning for Future

Gazette Senior Writer

The Steamship Authority will host a public hearing on the Vineyard early next week, marking a crucial juncture in a tangled discussion about the future of the boat line that was established to serve the two Islands - and about the role of expanded ferry service between the Vineyard and New Bedford.

The hearing begins at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Oak Bluffs School.

Called on short notice amid a scramble of activity to tie up a basketful of loose ends before SSA general manager Armand Tiberio leaves the boat line next month, the hearing is ostensibly intended to allow the people of the Vineyard to express their views. Subjects for discussion will include expanded ferry service, including high-speed passenger service and also freight service between the Vineyard and New Bedford.

SSA general manager Armand Tiberio said yesterday that the format of the meeting was still under discussion.

But it is understood that the format will include a main presentation by Mr. Tiberio, who will emphasize that no decisions have been made. Mr. Tiberio also intends to outline the goals of the boat line, including:

* Reduce or maintain costs.

* Reduce freight traffic through the existing ports.

* Make more space available for Island residents on the boats.

* Improve connections with public transportation.

* Reduce Island-bound car traffic coming through Woods Hole.

* Reduce short-term (one-to-four day) visitor car traffic to the Island.

It is understood that the format for the meeting will also include a densely packed presentation of information on options for New Bedford ferry service, including passenger and freight service. For seasonal passenger service the options include continuing with the Schamonchi, using a mid-speed passenger ferry (24-26 knots) and using a high-speed passenger ferry (34-36 knots). For seasonal freight service the options include using the freight boat Katama and using a new mid-speed freight vessel.

A wide array of charts, graphs, tables and schedules are planned, including a table that would show fare increases on the Vineyard run that would be needed to pay for additional capital in $10 million increments.

It is also understood that Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker has prepped Mr. Tiberio with his own 20-point list in connection with the long-term service plan for the Vineyard. Mr. Parker's facts include:

* The New Bedford ferry terminal is 20 miles closer to route 128 than the Woods Hole terminal, with no bridges or towns and highway all the way to the water. The New Bedford terminal is 42 miles closer than Woods Hole for travelers from the west.

* New Bedford plans to build parking at its harbor facility.

* If the SSA does not replace the Schamonchi with high-speed passenger service, New Bedford or some other operator will apply for a license to provide this service.

Mr. Parker's fact sheet contains nearly identical language with a cover sheet on a customer survey now circulating on boat line ferries - especially the language about the distance from the ferry terminal to the highway.

The survey is being distributed to passengers on the Islander, the Martha's Vineyard and the Schamonchi. Mr. Tiberio said yesterday that the survey is being done in-house as part of a feasibility study for a demonstration high-speed ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

He said distribution of the survey took place last weekend and will take place again this weekend.

The cover letter for the survey reads like an advertisement for New Bedford service. "The Steamship Authority would like to determine whether our customers would be interested in taking advantage of the convenience, comfort and shorter driving time provided by this new ferry service," the letter says.

Mr. Tiberio said yesterday that the survey is not promotional but factual.

"Those are all facts. What we are saying here is what we think - we think the service is going to be more convenient and we think the comfort of the vessel is much different in comparison with the older vessels," he said.

"This kind of survey is trying to take a pulse of the people that are out there right now. It's going to be interesting to see what they are going to say to us. I don't think it will be conclusive but it will show a trend," he added.

Mr. Tiberio said the customer survey is one part of a feasibility review for a demonstration high-speed ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard. He said there are many other parts of the feasibility review, but he said some can only be learned from actually doing the demonstration project.

"The actual demonstration is designed to look at many of the issues," Mr. Tiberio said.

Mr. Tiberio said he is uncertain whether the results of the customer survey will be ready for the Tuesday public hearing, but he said the results will be included in his final feasibility report for the board.

He was also not specific about when he expects the report to be done, but he said it will be before he leaves the boat line on Sept. 14 to take another job.

Mr. Tiberio said there were two issues that he described as "show-stoppers:" Whether a high-speed vessel is available for lease and whether the terminal facility in New Bedford can be developed to accommodate the service.

As the flurry of preparations continued for the hearing next week, one question remained unanswered: Will the Vineyard people be asked if they want high-speed ferry service from New Bedford?

"That's not my decision," Mr. Tiberio said.