New Bedford Ferry Divides Selectmen

Vineyard Leaders Order SSA Governor to Return for Further Consultations Before Final Decision on Fast Ferry

Gazette Senior Writer

For the second time in a month, a large group of Vineyard selectmen this week wavered on the subject of high-speed ferry service out of New Bedford, asking the Island Steamship Authority governor to meet with them one more time before he makes any decision on a trial fast ferry project.

"What I am saying is go ahead and explore the possibility, but before a final decision is made on a fast ferry - come back," said Edgartown selectman Fred B. Morgan Jr.

The comment came at a meeting of the All-Island Selectmen's Association on Wednesday night. The meeting included a wide-ranging discussion on Steamship Authority issues with Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker.

At the association meeting last month, the selectmen asked Mr. Parker to delay any vote on high-speed ferry service until after their meeting this week.

On Wednesday night, selectmen from every town voted to stand behind a broadly-drawn, five-point set of recommendations on boat line affairs adopted early in the summer - but they added an amendment asking Mr. Parker to come back one more time before he takes any action on a pilot high-speed program for next year. Mr. Parker said the SSA must vote on the project at the Oct. 18 board meeting - and the selectmen's association agreed to call their own special meeting on Oct. 17.

Selectmen also voted to send letters to the Falmouth and Nantucket boat line board members, urging them to reconsider their recent vote to adopt a new cost allocation policy.

"This is reneging on an agreement that they made for repayment, and that is not right," said Mr. Morgan.

In recent weeks there has been growing disarray among Vineyard officials over SSA affairs, and Mr. Parker's bitter split with Nantucket has begun to eclipse nearly every boat line issue. This week opinion was not unanimous on any of the SSA issues - and there were some heated moments.

Dukes County commissioner Dan Flynn walked out in a huff before any votes were taken. And tempers flared briefly between county commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. and Mr. Morgan over whether Mr. Parker should return to the selectmen on the fast ferry project.

Mr. Morgan had proposed the more cautious route on the fast ferry project; Mr. Jason voted against it.

"I don't understand you, Lenny," Mr. Morgan said.

"What's to understand - we voted to do something earlier and now we are going back on it," Mr. Jason shot back.

"We're not going back on anything - all we are saying is, ‘Come back because we want to know what the hell you are going to do,' " Mr. Morgan said.

Mr. Parker said he is no longer confident that he can persuade the boat line board to adopt his vision for expanded ferry service out of New Bedford.

"As you know, Nantucket is unalterably opposed to any change, and I am not at all sure where Falmouth is after last week. I am not sanguine about the result, I have to tell you," Mr. Parker said.

At the monthly SSA meeting last week the board of governors voted 2-1 to eliminate a four-year-old policy designed to "recapture" some $7 million in revenues through rate increases on the Nantucket run. In a change that was recommended by boat line treasurer and acting general manager Wayne Lamson, the old policy was replaced with a policy that would have a more moderate effect on Nantucket rates.

Mr. Parker lost the vote, and throughout this week he lobbied Vineyard public officials to rally against the decision. The cost allocation policy is complicated, even when reduced to its simplest terms.

Mr. Lamson said yesterday that if the policy had not been changed, a $3 million rate increase for the coming year would have fallen almost entirely on the Nantucket run.

"Nobody really saw what the impact would be. It's hindsight now, but if I had foreseen this I would have made some changes at the time," Mr. Lamson said.

Mr. Lamson said he believes it would be unwise to return to the old policy. "All I can see that doing is creating huge fights in the future - already now it is getting in the way of so many other things we are doing," he said.

In an opinion piece published in both Island newspapers this week, Mr. Parker lashed out at Nantucket for lobbying to eliminate the policy.

"The Nantucket member, Mrs. Grossman, has agitated for its elimination," Mr. Parker wrote.

In fact the policy change was proposed by Mr. Lamson.

Yesterday Mr. Lamson released a detailed analysis of operating revenues and allocations by route.

At the selectmen's meeting this week, Mr. Parker reiterated many statements he has made in other public forums in recent weeks, promoting the fast ferry project out of New Bedford as a way to cut down on car traffic coming to the Vineyard, open up more car space for Island residents and reduce fares.

He pointed to the Nantucket fast ferry project as an ideal model, and he said the Nantucket experience shows high-speed ferry service will not bring more visitors to the Vineyard. "People have said it's going to bring more people total - we don't have any facts to suggest that," Mr. Parker said. He did not mention a boat line management report that says the New Bedford high-speed ferry project must bring some 200,000 more visitors to the Vineyard in order to break even.

He repeated that the Vineyard needs New Bedford.

"I think we need New Bedford. I think we should work with them and negotiate with them and try to manage the situation so it works for us. I am in the process of trying to do this," Mr. Parker said.

At the outset, West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell restated the five-point set of recommendations adopted by the selectmen in June, and gave a book report of sorts on other discussions that have taken place, including a discussion at a Martha's Vineyard Commission meeting two weeks ago.

Ms. Mitchell did not attend the MVC meeting, but she had distilled a 23-point list of issues from the minutes of the meeting.

There were questions, many of them centered on the fast ferry.

"I don't know why we are so wedded to this fast ferry - and I don't feel that there are very many people in our community who are for a fast ferry," said Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel.

The five-point list adopted again by the selectmen is an expression of support for the following:

* A general exploratory approach to SSA issues.

* Replacement of the ferry Islander as a top priority.

* Using an Authority freight vessel on the New Bedford run.

* Moving the early morning hazardous freight run from Woods Hole to New Bedford.

* Exploring a lease arrangement for a trial high-speed ferry project.

Mr. Parker told the selectmen that he is in favor of using an Authority freight boat on the New Bedford run, even though he voted with the rest of the board last week to put out a request for proposals (RFP) for private carriers. One private carrier has made a verbal offer to the boat line to run freight service at no cost to the SSA, but Mr. Parker said the proposal will likely cause too much disruption in the reservation system.

"It is time for us to do it," Mr. Parker said. "Absent some extraordinary proposal put to us through this RFP process, I think we should go ahead with the Steamship Authority boats," he concluded.