Boat Line Forum Pushes Plan to Boost Passenger Traffic with Fast Ferries

Gazette Senior Writer

A plan to pump up passenger traffic to the Vineyard and pay millions of dollars to develop the port of New Bedford in the years ahead was pitched to the people of the Island this week as a way to increase operating revenues for the public boat line, reduce car traffic in the port towns of Falmouth and Hyannis and open up more space on ferries for Island residents.

"We have to realize we are part of a transportation network, and it seems to me that our task has to be to improve transportation to the Islands. We need to think about how we can make it easier to get to the Islands," said outgoing SSA general manager Armand Tiberio.

"The potential for profitability on the run to New Bedford is tremendous," said Vineyard Steamship Authority governor J.B. Riggs Parker.

The remarks were made before an overflow crowd of Island residents who turned out for a public hearing on Tuesday night.

What was billed as an open forum for discussion turned out to be a protracted session of show and tell that dragged on for hours, with only scant time left at the end for comment from workaday Island residents.

"Goodness, I am glad so many people came tonight. I think it's a great showing. We need your guidance. We need your comments," said Mr. Parker at the outset of the public hearing held in the Oak Bluffs School.

More than 250 people attended, although dozens of people left the meeting after more than two hours went by, and still Mr. Parker had not called for public comment.

The meeting began with a dense presentation by Mr. Tiberio that included a read-along, 50-page information booklet distributed with other materials.

Using charts, graphs and statistics, Mr. Tiberio described a plan to shift the boat line from what he called a vehicle-directed system to a passenger-directed system.

He described an aging ferry fleet that he said needs modernizing. He said parking lots in Falmouth are full and cannot be expanded. He described flattening passenger and car traffic to the Vineyard and the need to boost revenues to meet increased operating costs.

He said the solution may lie in the development of the New Bedford port for passenger and freight service. He described a proposal to replace the passenger ferry Schamonchi with an $8 million high-speed passenger ferry, and another proposal to buy a $12 million mid-speed freight vessel for the New Bedford run.

At the center of the new model is a plan to increase passenger traffic to the Vineyard.

"If traffic is not increased to generate additional revenue … and our service levels stay the same, fares will have to be increased," declared a fact sheet prepared by Mr. Parker in the information packet.

Mr. Tiberio promoted the port of New Bedford for its easy access.

"This [high-speed] service is not for the residents of Martha's Vineyard. It is for those people who are coming to Martha's Vineyard," he said.

After the presentation went on for more than an hour and a half, one resident in the back of the room asked Mr. Tiberio to stop. "Will you please conclude your remarks? We would like to hear others," she said.

The room erupted in applause.

Mr. Parker then called upon public officials, who took up another half an hour with their statements. Several said they support the plan to promote more passenger traffic to the Vineyard.

"Growth is inevitable," declared Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello.

Chilmark selectman Warren Doty praised the plan to run SSA freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard and also the plan for high-speed passenger service.

"I think we've learned how important it is to look to the future. The Steamship Authority can't have tunnel vision, it must look down the road," Mr. Leland said.

West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell outlined a five-point set of recommendations adopted by the Dukes County Selectmen's Association in connection with the service model.

Only Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey appeared to be in a questioning frame of mind, quizzing Mr. Tiberio about the wisdom of replacing the Schamonchi with a high-speed passenger ferry when passenger traffic is flat.

"If there is no growth on the route, how is there enough growth to support a fast ferry - that is my concern," Mr. Wey said.

After two and a half hours it was time for ordinary citizens to speak - and there was a noticeable change in tone.

"I am somewhat disturbed with this kind of a document, because the numbers always look good on paper," said Tisbury resident Bob Hammond, referring to the SSA information packet. Mr. Hammond held in his hand another sheaf of papers that he said told the story of a fast-ferry project in the Puget Sound - a project he said was fraught with environmental problems and huge cost overruns.

"I urge everybody to be very careful about this whole thing," Mr. Hammond said, adding: "I also am disappointed that you didn't offer us more options. We are suddenly steamrolled down this path and you are heaping all of this on us and I urge everyone to look at this carefully."

One West Tisbury resident who did not identify herself asked for an Islandwide referendum on the boat line issues - but Mr. Parker said it would be too difficult to construct the language for a ballot question.

"But the Steamship Authority is supposedly our lifeline and you wanted our input," the woman replied.

"You said earlier that there is very little growth in traffic, with the ridership down. I don't see how speed will solve the problem. The last time I saw speed looked to as an answer was the Concorde. I hope we are not looking at spending this kind of money before we are sure of the ridership," said Chilmark resident Edward Miller.

"I hear you saying that growth is inevitable, and that is especially true if you make it easier and easier to come to Martha's Vineyard. But why make it easier and easier?" said Chilmark resident Rick Shweder. Pointing to the numbers in the information packet, Mr. Shweder said the boat line plan calls for a dramatic increase in passenger traffic to make the service pay for itself.

"So in order to get there you need to bring more and more people to the Vineyard. This is not in and of itself good," Mr. Shweder said. He added: "I would suggest that there is a delicate equilibrium on Islands like Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and those issues have not been brought out here at all. Easy parking, fast terminal, easy on and easy off. So we are setting up a Steamship Authority that will bring more passengers so it can pay for those ferries"

Mr. Parker replied:

"If you are willing to achieve the goal of making more space on the boats for Island residents - that is the reason this service is being proposed." The remark stirred expressions of disbelief around the room.

Steve Bernier, a respected Vineyard businessman, challenged both the boat line and Island officials.

"I would like to rock the boat," said Mr. Bernier, making a pun on a popular button worn by Island residents at a state house hearing two years ago.

"This service model sounds like Santa Claus and Christmastime, and at some point we are going to have to get into the economics of this business," he said, adding: "And I am going to say one thing: No more people, no more vehicles. We have to take care of the golden egg."

Mr. Bernier pointed to Bermuda as an example of an island that has voluntary limits. Mr. Bernier, who is a successful grocery merchant, pointedly questioned the business side of the boat line plan. He said: "Look at the economics. These are huge changes and there are costs associated with them that I don't think we are even beginning to talk about."

He concluded: "We are getting to the end of our growth on Martha's Vineyard, and we have got to talk about slowing things down. Enough is enough. We need a different model, or we are going to break the golden egg. I say enough is enough - no more traffic. I would like the selectmen to please listen - and do something. Get some people together, build a team and take a careful economic approach to this - please."

Noreen Mavro Flanders, a lifelong Vineyard resident who is the county treasurer, urged Mr. Parker to listen to the people. She also recalled Mr. Parker's remarks at a county commission meeting earlier this summer. "At that meeting I heard you say you are a servant of the legislature. All of us look to you to be our representative and not just to be an employee of the legislature. You are our representative and I look to you to act like it," Ms. Flanders said, drawing applause.

Mr. Parker replied: "I do listen. I have attended over 150 meetings and I have listened carefully. It does not mean that I agree with what everyone said. I have to make decisions about what I think is best for the whole Island and for the Steamship Authority."