SSA Board Finds New Harmony; Cancels New Bedford Freight Run

Gazette Senior Writer

After months of divisive board relations and bruising politics, the Steamship Authority governors cemented a new harmony yesterday, tackling the business of the boat line on a variety of fronts from New Bedford to Nantucket with virtually no discord.

"The tone of this meeting is fantastic. What a change," declared Nat Lowell, a Nantucket trucker who regularly attends boat line meetings.

The comment came during the regular monthly SSA meeting held in Woods Hole yesterday morning.

The governors plowed through a packed business agenda in less than two hours, among other things voting to approve a modest increase in passenger capacity for a private ferry that runs between Falmouth and Edgartown in the summer months, to participate in an experimental shuttle bus service between Boston and Woods Hole for one more summer and to loosen rules for commuter books on the Flying Cloud, the fast ferry that runs between Hyannis and Nantucket.

What might have been the central agenda item - the cancellation of freight service from New Bedford to the Vineyard - was eclipsed earlier in the week when a formal announcement was circulated to the press.

The SSA announced late Tuesday afternoon that the freight service was canceled after New Bedford failed to respond to repeated inquiries from the boat line about the service.

At their meeting last month the board of governors set March 8 as the deadline for some response from the Whaling City.

New Bedford city officials have been on the warpath against the SSA since December, when the Dukes County Commission voted to appoint Kathryn A. Roessel to replace J.B. Riggs Parker, the controversial Vineyard boat line governor who had aligned himself with New Bedford interests.

The New Bedford officials, who have lobbied for years to open up more ferry service from their city, suddenly took a 180-degree turn and announced that they would not allow freight service to run between the Vineyard and the State Pier in New Bedford this summer, even though the boat line board had voted without dissent to run the service.

New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire, who recently resigned, claimed that the SSA governors were no longer friendly toward New Bedford.

The freight service was set to start May 1.

The SSA announced early this week that John Montgomery, a partner at Ropes and Gray in Boston who represents the boat line, had sent a letter to Mr. Leontire informing him that the service would be canceled.

"New Bedford's failure to take any steps to conclude . . . an agreement that would allow the Steamship Authority to use the State Pier in connection with its proposed 2002 freight service leaves the Steamship Authority with little choice but to cancel the service for the entire summer season," wrote Emily Shanahan, who is Mr. Montgomery's associate.

"We have no reasonable alternative other than to cancel," said acting general manager Wayne Lamson at yesterday's meeting. Mr. Lamson said all summer freight to the Vineyard will now run through Woods Hole.

Dick Sherman, a resident of Falmouth and the Vineyard, questioned the right of New Bedford to dictate the use of a state pier. "It is a state pier; why can't we go to the state?" he asked.

SSA general counsel Steven Sayers said in fact the boat line has appealed to the state, to no avail.

"We have gone to the state and have asked them to assist us, and we have as yet received no response," he said.

The pier is owned by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM); DEM has a management contract with the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission (HDC) for the use of the pier. The HDC has long been controlled by Mr. Leontire.

Mr. Leontire resigned as city solicitor three weeks ago, but he continues to act as an unpaid political consultant to the city on SSA issues. The city is also suing the boat line in federal court for alleged violations of interstate commerce laws.

Although there will be no freight service, there will still be passenger service between New Bedford and the Vineyard this summer on the ferry Schamonchi. Bought by the SSA last year, the Schamonchi runs from a privately owned pier in New Bedford.

In other business yesterday, SSA governors approved a request from the owners of the Pied Piper to carry more passengers on the summer passenger ferry that operates between the Falmouth harbor and the Memorial Wharf in Edgartown.

Cape and Islands Transport, the company that owns the ferry, was limited to 70 passengers under its license agreement with the SSA. This year the company asked to increase the capacity to 149 passengers, the maximum capacity of the ferry. The Pied Piper has developed a reputation for excellent customer service over the last three years, and the popularity of the ferry has grown, especially among Edgartown summer residents.

Public hearings were held in Edgartown and in Falmouth last month on the license request, and after the hearings the ferry company reduced its request from 149 to 90 passengers. The Edgartown Parks Department, which manages Memorial Wharf, recommended the smaller number because of concerns about managing the influx of pedestrians at the busy, mixed-use wharf.

The Pied Piper owners wanted a three-year license agreement with the boat line, but yesterday Ms. Roessel moved to shorten the agreement to one year, after the Vineyard member of the financial advisory board questioned the wisdom of allowing the private ferries to eat up more boat line revenues.

"We're competing with ourselves, and the people of the Vineyard are the ones who pay in terms of increased rates from eroding revenues," said advisory board member Robert Murphy.

Ms. Roessel reminded the board that it had begun to discuss a review of its licensing fees late last year, but the review was never completed. With a new chief executive officer coming on board in the next few weeks, Ms. Roessel said this might be a good time for a complete assessment.

"Maybe we should just make this [Pied Piper license request] for a year and make a commitment to have a full discussion about our fee structure. It seems like the time has really come," Ms. Roessel said.

The other board members agreed and the increased passenger capacity for the Pied Piper was approved for one year.

The ferry will be allowed to carry a maximum of 90 passengers on each trip and a maximum of 95 passengers on the last trip leaving the Vineyard on Sunday nights. The ferry operates from Memorial Day through Columbus Day.

Boat line governors also went into executive session to complete discussions for a contract with Fred C. Raskin, a former marine transport executive who is expected to take over as the first-ever chief executive officer at the boat line early next month. Mr. Raskin was selected by a unanimous vote of the board after a series of interviews with candidates last month.

Falmouth governor and board chairman Galen Robbins said he hopes to complete the contract details and make an announcement about Mr. Raskin's arrival date in the next few days. If there are no problems with the contract, Mr. Raskin is expected to be on the job by early April.