Island Leaders Act to Block Decisions on Fast Ferry Service to New Bedford
By JULIA WELLS and JOSHUA SABATINI
In an unexpected move that marks a new turn in the road for the Steamship Authority, the All-Island Selectmen's Association voted without dissent this week to tell the Vineyard boat line governor to put the brakes on plans for high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
"Right now we are being told that this is what the SSA wants and what they want to do. That is not what the SSA is about - what we need to do is to tell them what we want," declared Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico.
"I have grave concerns. We really have to watch what we are doing," said Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey.
The remarks came during the monthly meeting of the All-Island Selectmen's Association, held at the Howes House in West Tisbury on Wednesday.
At the meeting a large group of Island officials - including selectmen, county commissioners and members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission - voted unanimously to write a letter to Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker asking him to take no action on the fast ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard for at least one month.
"[We are] requesting that as the Martha's Vineyard representative to the Steamship Authority board of governors, you postpone taking any vote on the New Bedford fast ferry proposal specifically and on the service model proposals in general until after the association members have met in regular session on Oct. 3," wrote Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck in a letter to Mr. Parker yesterday.
Mr. Smadbeck is chairman of the selectmen's association.
The selectmen's association plans to travel to Nantucket on Sept. 29 to meet with Nantucket officials to discuss SSA affairs, and the next meeting of the selectmen's association on the Vineyard is Oct. 3.
The unanimous vote by elected officials on the Vineyard this week throws a monkey wrench into Mr. Parker's plan to vote on a demonstration high-speed ferry project at the September boat line meeting.
The meeting will be held Sept. 27 on the Vineyard.
"I think this was an expression of ‘Let's go slow, let's examine all the numbers,' " Mr. Smadbeck said following the Wednesday night meeting.
The meeting included selectmen from every town except Chilmark. Mr. Parker - who has attended the association meetings for several months straight along with SSA general manager Armand Tiberio - was not present.
"Some people made a lot of good points," Mr. Smadbeck said.
Discussion at the meeting included sharp criticism of a recent customer survey circulated by the boat line. Framed in language that appears to promote high-speed ferry service over conventional service, the survey was circulated for two consecutive weekends on Vineyard-bound ferries from Woods Hole and New Bedford.
"I think this is a ridiculous survey," said Edgartown selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr. on Wednesday night.
Mr. Morgan led the move to send the letter to Mr. Parker.
"I think a lot of people think that we probably need a more thorough survey," said Mr. Smadbeck.
"There was also some question about the numbers that were put out last week [at a public hearing hosted by the boat line]. If you look at some of those numbers, and what it would take to break even - well, the numbers might indicate that what we really want is a slow ferry," he added.
"We are just trying to get to the place where we are all on the same page," Mr. Smadbeck said.
The discussion on Wednesday night also strayed into the merits of high-speed ferry service from New Bedford.
Mr. Pachico said the numbers distributed at the SSA public hearing last week were full of contradictions, and he said he is concerned that the boat line board has already made up its mind about high-speed service.
"It appears to me that it's a done deal," Mr. Pachico said.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel echoed similar concerns.
"I think if we wait too long to look at this issue and not do anything, they are going to go ahead with their thing. I want to get into this at our next meeting, because otherwise things are going to happen as opposed to us having a voice," Mr. Israel said.
"Maybe we should give a license to New Bedford and let them buy a fast ferry and let them run it back and forth. Why are we getting into this fast ferry project, anyway?" said Mr. Wey, who expressed concerns about cost and the viability of a high-speed ferry project.
"I think it is reasonable to ask for a couple of different options. . . . By their own numbers, a fast ferry will require twice as many passengers to break even," said Russell Smith, an Aquinnah resident who is the Vineyard legislative liaison.
"Everyone has a different idea about what is going on here, and there doesn't seem to be a firm plan," concluded Mr. Morgan.
As elected officials on the Vineyard reach some consensus about the need to slow down and take a harder look at the development of New Bedford ferry service, behind the scenes at the SSA, Mr. Parker and Mr. Tiberio have been working to wrap up the high-speed ferry project before Mr. Tiberio leaves the boat line in less than 10 days to take another job.
Among other things, the results of the survey are being tabulated and Mr. Tiberio is working to complete a feasibility report on the high-speed demonstration project between New Bedford and the Vineyard.
Aimed at replacing the ferry Schamonchi, which the boat line just bought this year, the high-speed demonstration project was targeted for a vote at the September meeting.
Mr. Parker and Mr. Tiberio have been working closely with New Bedford city officials to develop the project - even though it has not been officially voted on by the boat line board.
Among other things, a federal grant application has been filed for construction money to build a new high-speed ferry for the New Bedford run, and there has been work behind the scenes at the state level to appropriate funds to pay for leasing a high-speed ferry for the demonstration project. Talks are under way with ferry companies for leasing a high-speed ferry.
But if Mr. Parker heeds the request from the Vineyard selectmen, all that will now need to be put on hold.
"I think the message [to Mr. Parker] was - don't vote on anything until we have had a chance to talk about it some more. Just go slow," Mr. Smadbeck said.