SSA Considers Ticket Fare Cut
Monies Saved by New Bedford's Refusal to Run Ferry Service from State Pier May Mean Lower Prices for Islanders
By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer
The decision by the city of New Bedford early this year to cancel Steamship Authority ferry service in and out of the State Pier there has saved the public boat line substantial amounts of money - and the savings may soon translate to reduced fares for Island residents.
"I think we can assume no rate increase, and we may propose certain rate reductions" for next year, said SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin during the monthly boat line meeting yesterday morning. The comment came during a discussion of budget policy for the coming year.
Held in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, the meeting drew a small crowd of about 40 Vineyard residents and public officials. A new plan to make boat line ferries more user-friendly for people with disabilities and new policy to cement a spirit of cooperation between the SSA and the port of Vineyard Haven were two of the central agenda items for the day.
Mr. Raskin's report at the outset on the healthy state of boat line finances also sparked a wider discussion about rates later in the meeting. Revenues are up, expenses are down and cash is well up for the first four months of the year, Mr. Raskin said in an operations report that is now a regular feature of the monthly boat line meetings.
Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel put a proposal on the table to reduce excursion fares for Island residents next year.
"We're going to save at least $1.2 million this year because the city of New Bedford is not allowing us to use the State Pier. The financial reports are excellent and this can be tracked in part to [former New Bedford city solicitor George] Leontire," said Ms. Roessel.
Five months ago, New Bedford officials pulled the plug on ongoing freight service to and from the Vineyard, and also on a plan for a pilot high-speed passenger ferry.
Falmouth governor and board chairman Galen Robbins noted that the boat line has spent $6.6 million in the last two years on New Bedford service.
Mr. Raskin said it is important to look at the whole picture, and he reminded the board that the full cash reserves will be needed in the immediate years ahead for major capital projects like refurbishing the Oak Bluffs terminal and replacing the ferry Islander.
"I am hoping to reduce rates, but you have to look at all the numbers together; it's very dangerous to select single item issues," Mr. Raskin said. "But I will also say that from what I have learned in the short time that I have been here, that excursion rates are a priority for most people - nothing is clearer in my mind - and that is very much number one.
"I don't think that anyone around here would say that the rate structure is what it should be," he said.
Robert Sawyer, a Tisbury resident and member of the Dukes County Commission, urged the board to reduce excursion fares.
"We want, we need, we plead for a substantial reduction in excursion fares," he said.
The board heard a report from Anson Krickl, chairman of Islanders for Universal Access, who submitted a list of recommendations for improvements on boat line ferries, developed after a detailed survey done by the universal access group last year.
"The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990," Mr. Krickl said. "Besides improving the ferry ride for those we represent, we will also help you to comply with that act."
The report has already prompted one change: Boat line managers announced that the SSA web site was updated this week to better reflect information about ferry access for people with disabilities.
Also yesterday, the board voted to approve a policy to comply with the spirit of the Tisbury harbor district of critical planning concern (DCPC). Crafted by Ms. Roessel, the policy means that the SSA will hold public hearings to get public comment on any changes or new projects that affect the Tisbury harbor. Because it is a state agency, the boat line is exempt from the rules of a DCPC.
But boat line general counsel Steven Sayers said the voluntary compliance policy is perfectly legal, and he, too, praised the intent. "We do agree with the spirit of the DCPC, and it is a very good planning tool," he said.
There was more than one reference to the late Edmond G. Coogan, a former Tisbury selectman who spearheaded the Tisbury harbor DCPC.
"Ed really steered the ship and got this thing going and it was wonderful community effort," said Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel.
All three Tisbury selectmen attended the meeting, as did West Tisbury selectman Glenn Hearn and Mr. Sawyer. Notably absent were several Island officials who have been vocal critics of the boat line in recent months, and have traveled to Boston to lobby state legislators on behalf of the city of New Bedford.
"We should all work together now that George is not here - but he's lurking out there, believe me," quipped Nat Lowell, a Nantucket trucker who regularly attends boat line meetings. The remark drew scattered laughter.
Tisbury resident Art Flathers and Oak Bluffs resident Robert Iadicicco, who also regularly attend SSA meetings, peppered the board with questions throughout the meeting. Mr. Flathers, a frequent critic of boat line financial management, began to reiterate his request for a detailed accounting of revenues on the Nantucket and Vineyard runs. Among other things, Mr. Flathers has advocated recently for breaking the SSA into two separate boat lines.
Board members stood their ground in responding to Mr. Flathers.
"Art, the legislature, in its wisdom, set this up as one boat line," Ms. Roessel said. "It would be possible to run two separate boat lines, however, and I know that you think the Vineyarders pay more than their share, but personally I don't see it that way.
"But if you want two boat lines, then you should go to the legislature and lobby them for two boat lines," she continued. "Art, the line forms to the right."
Nantucket governor Grace Grossman added her own comments.
"Mr. Flathers, you have put so much in the paper and have given us so many written reports, but some of them are not true," she began. Mr. Flathers tried to interrupt her, but the Nantucket governor cut him off.
"It's my nickel, Mr. Flathers, and I want to say that you have been unfair to Nantucket," Mrs. Grossman said.
Then the CEO jumped into the discussion, noting that SSA critics examine the complicated subject of cost allocation differently than do boat line managers.
"How we allocate expenses on the routes - we don't do it according to where the asset was intended to be used, we do it where the asset was actually used," Mr. Raskin said. "I know you don't think we should do it that way, Art, but we do.
"This is a partnership," he added, "and, as Cassie said, the legislature has established this partnership. Otherwise we get into the business - which Art, you do - of cherry-picking the best and ignoring the worst."
Mrs. Grossman concluded: "It's too bad that a few people are trying to be divisive and want to split the two Islands. As long as I can remember the two Islands have been together and we lived in peace and happiness."