SSA Board Sinks New Bedford Ferry Plan; Shaky Financial Footing Collapses Proposal

Gazette Senior Writer

In a 2-1 vote that left Vineyard Steamship Authority governor J.B. Riggs Parker visibly seething, the SSA board yesterday killed a trial high-speed ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard that would have cost $10 million over the next three years.

"A $10 million investment over three years with no market study? This is not the right deal or the right time," said Falmouth SSA governor Galen Robbins.

"Considering that we are in an economic downturn and that we are at war, it's not business as usual. I feel we should take our time and not rush into anything," said Nantucket governor Grace Grossman.

The comments came at the monthly boat line meeting held in Woods Hole.

Seasoned politicians said later that it was the most rancorous public session they had ever attended. Vineyard resident Art Flathers told one person to shut up and made an obscene gesture with his middle finger to another. The meeting was marked by a tense moment when Mr. Parker broke board parliamentary rules and gave the floor to New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire in mid-discussion among board members just before the vote. Mr. Robbins and Mrs. Grossman raised a vocal protest, but Mr. Parker told them to "be quiet" and then urged Mr. Leontire to speak louder.

The events left many in the room visibly shaken.

The boat line board plowed its way through a packed agenda, approving a plan to replace the pilot freight program between New Bedford and the Vineyard with a Steamship Authority-run program next year using the freight vessel Katama. A $59.7 million operating budget and a corresponding $3.2 million rate increase for the coming year were also approved. The rate increase will include a hefty increase on the excursion fares - off-season excursion fares on the Vineyard run will go up from $35 to $48. A proposal to change the rules for the fares was not adopted; the fares will still include two adults and two children.

But the central piece of business at the meeting was the controversial fast ferry project.

The high-speed ferry project has been under discussion for a number of months. The proposal that finally came before the board for a vote called for the SSA to lease a high-speed passenger ferry from Boston Harbor Cruises for $100,000 a month for a minimum of three years, to replace the passenger ferry Schamonchi. At the end of three years the SSA would have the option to buy the boat for $7 million. The ferry cost $8.5 million to build.

Mr. Robbins and Mrs. Grossman staked out their position against enormous political pressure. A large group of Vineyard and Falmouth politicians attended the meeting in high spirits after strong votes by Falmouth and Vineyard selectmen to endorse the high-speed ferry project earlier in the week. The Falmouth selectmen voted unanimously to support the project on Tuesday night, and one night later Vineyard public officials voted 16-5 to support the project. Mr. Parker and Mr. Leontire staged last-minute promotional shows in Falmouth and the Vineyard in an effort to shape the votes.

A financial analysis of the high-speed ferry project prepared earlier in the week by boat line acting general manager and treasurer Wayne Lamson was kept under wraps and not shown to Vineyard selectmen until the last minute. Instead, the selectmen were shown a report prepared by Mr. Leontire that used only the most optimistic numbers from Mr. Lamson's report.

Yesterday Mr. Robbins in effect blew the whistle on the promotional campaign that wooed the selectmen with Mr. Leontire's work instead of the solid and balanced report put forward by Mr. Lamson.

At the outset of the meeting, one Falmouth selectman underscored the sequence of events. "We voted largely on George's presentation. After now seeing the report by Mr. Lamson, I can understand it if the board needs to look at possibly waiting a year to make it work," said selectman Carey Murphy.

Mr. Robbins methodically dismantled Mr. Leontire's proposal and then anchored his own comments about the project in the report by Mr. Lamson, which found that the project is likely to lose between $900,000 and $1.7 million. Mr. Robbins noted that passenger projections for the project are uncertain at best and based on an unscientific survey. Using the numbers from the survey, Mr. Robbins concluded that the high-speed ferry would not carry any more passengers than the Schamonchi.

"This is an unscientific survey that we did, but guess what - that's all we have. [Based on the information we have], we can expect to carry approximately 90,000 passengers - the same as we are doing today. It would not take one car out of Woods Hole and it would double the loss to $1.7 million," Mr. Robbins said.

Unswerving with his own message about fiscal responsibility and careful analysis of the facts, the Falmouth member noted that the details of the project were developed in about 20 short days. He also said it is a fallacy to call the project a pilot. "This cannot be a test. You don't invest $10 million and call it a test," he said.

Mr. Parker had another view: "I support this experiment. I think it is a sound business opportunity and it is also a reasonable business risk. I call upon my colleagues to join me in supporting this experiment.

"It has the unanimous support of the Falmouth selectmen. It has the support of the All-Island Selectmen who represent six towns. It has the wide support of Martha's Vineyard. This authority is in financial difficulty. We need to expand; we need that stability."

In the end the vote was 2-1. "Well, that settles the matter," declared an angry Mr. Parker.

Mr. Leontire also raised his voice in protest.

"I have no problem with any politician voting against any proposal, but you've got to have the guts to say why," he told Mr. Robbins.

Mrs. Grossman lambasted Mr. Leontire for his bullying approach.

A handful of Vineyard officials expressed outrage at the outcome of the vote, but more than one also praised Mr. Robbins.

"If I had heard you last night, I would have voted differently," Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico told Mr. Robbins. Mr. Pachico voted in favor of the ferry project.

Others said they were offended by the tone of the meeting.

"This has been the most distasteful public meeting I have ever attended - I am shocked and think that the New Bedford methods for doing business amount to nothing less than political thuggery," said Virginia Jones, a member of the West Tisbury planning board and longtime waterfront businesswoman.

In the end Woods Hole activist Frank Shephard appeared to offer a bit of an olive branch.

"I am obviously not a happy camper today, but hopefully we are still talking to each other because compared to what is happening on a national level - this is a tempest in a teapot, as it were," he said. "The people of the Cape and Islands are just trying to find some consensus."

Tisbury businessman Steve Bernier picked up on the theme. "We need to conduct ourselves civilly and appropriately," he told the boat line members.

Mr. Bernier also addressed Mr. Robbins: "I don't know you from a hole in the wall, but what you spoke about today had a lot to do with truth and prudence and reasonableness. I appreciate it, and I hope the people of Falmouth appreciate it." He continued:

"I am asking the three of you to put down your swords. The climate is now getting odd and uncomfortable. I ask for prudence - can we wait one more summer, can Falmouth be patient with us while we use our energy and our talents to come up with a better plan? Please, let's put the swords down - all of us."

The remarks drew applause from many, including Mr. Robbins and Mrs. Grossman. Mr. Parker sat silently.

"Bravo, Mr. Bernier," Mrs. Grossman said.