SSA Bill Draws Sharp Criticism

Boat Line CEO Fred C. Raskin Warns Politicians Against Moves to Force New Bedford Solution on the Steamship Authority

Gazette Senior Writer

The newly appointed chief executive officer of the Steamship Authority jumped into the legislative fray over the public boat line yesterday, calling on the state Senate to take a time-out and let the SSA develop its own business solutions - especially when it comes to ferry service out of New Bedford.

"The legislation can't force agreement. Adding a New Bedford representative to the board may make it more likely that some New Bedford service will be initiated, but it makes it less likely that such a decision will be made on the merits," wrote CEO Fred C. Raskin in a letter to Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham.

Sent to Mr. Birmingham yesterday, the letter comes as the state Senate prepares to take up a bill to dramatically restructure the public boat line that has been the lifeline to the two Islands for 42 years.

The bill was approved by the House last month after weeks of heated political debate. It is now in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means - and with just three weeks left until formal legislative session adjourns for the summer, the fate of the bill remains uncertain.

Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary reiterated this week that he is unhappy with the bill and that he is committed to at least changing it, or at best killing it.

"This is a bad bill, and this is an important issue to me politically," said Mr. O'Leary during a visit to the Vineyard on Wednesday.

Among other things, the bill would expand the board of governors from three to five members by giving voting seats to Barnstable and New Bedford. The bill would allow the two Islands to retain control of the board through a weighted vote. The bill replaced a bill drafted by the Joint Committee on Transportation three months ago. The transportation committee bill would have given a voting seat to Barnstable and a provisional nonvoting seat to New Bedford. But the bill was derailed by the powerful House delegation in New Bedford.

Mr. Raskin stepped into the top post at the boat line in April. In a brief telephone conversation from his office in Woods Hole yesterday, the CEO said that he has been reluctant until now to speak out about the pending legislation - but he said he decided to write the letter this week after a conversation with Falmouth member and board chairman Galen Robbins.

"Galen and I have been talking about this, and I said, okay, let me into the tent. I am not a political person by nature, but I think it is time that I said something about all of this," Mr. Raskin said.

In the letter Mr. Raskin wrote: "As a businessman, I view the House bill as a legislatively imposed solution to what is essentially a business problem - reducing traffic levels on the Cape while maintaining service to the Islands. It is an effort to bring together parties who are, unfortunately, feuding in the courts and the legislature." He also wrote:

"The Steamship Authority enjoys a well-deserved reputation for funding its own operations. The House legislation may jeopardize that. I would ask that you let a more orderly ‘business' process provide the solution. . . . Only after we have considered alternative solutions, carefully analyzed an additional New Bedford service and concluded the need for that service, can a true partnership evolve."

The complete text of the letter is published on the commentary page in today's Gazette.

Mr. Raskin said the letter was sent to Senator Birmingham yesterday, and copies will be sent to other legislative leaders today.

"You can't legislate a solution," Mr. Raskin said. He also said:

"I am not dug in on this issue of New Bedford service, and I think when the smoke clears, the board isn't dug in either. But this legislation could create a problem. Either you don't do a service that you should do, or you do a service that shouldn't be done. It is business judgment that should rule and you shouldn't let these galactic factors impose a supernatural solution. There are gradual steps we can take here."

Mr. Robbins praised Mr. Raskin for the letter.

"I think it's great. The letter is plain vanilla when it comes to the facts and it speaks to the right thing. That letter in a sense speaks for the board as well," he said. Mr. Robbins also said he expects the board of governors to submit a letter to the Senate, too, possibly as early as this week.

"I think there has been some perception out there that the board is divided on this issue, but the board is not divided," he said.

Mr. O'Leary said the bill is expected to move in the Senate sometime in the next three weeks. The legislature adjourns formal session on July 31.

Mr. O'Leary said he is considering a number of strategies - and also a number of proposed amendments to the bill, although he said much will depend on the will and whim of New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny, who is chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means. Mr. Montigny is also among a number of state senators who are vying for the Senate president spot (Senator Birmingham, who is running for Massachusetts governor, is stepping down as president) - so as usual, the Beacon Hill plot around the boat line bill is thick with politics.

The bill could come to the Senate floor for a vote or it could follow the route it took in the House last month, when a changed version of the bill was agreed on behind closed doors and later brought to the floor for a quick vote.

"It's a tough issue and an uphill battle, and I guess it doesn't get any more complicated than this," Mr. O'Leary said. Mr. O'Leary said he opposes a voting seat for New Bedford and he opposes a provision in the bill that requires a binding referendum vote on the Vineyard in November to change the way the Vineyard boat line governor is appointed. He said Mr. Montigny may oppose a provision in the bill that requires New Bedford to pay for half of any operating deficit on New Bedford ferry service for the first three years. The obligation would be capped at $650,000 and would not include any losses on the passenger ferry Schamonchi.

Currently the Schamonchi is the only ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. New Bedford city officials pulled the plug on an ongoing freight program and a plan for a trial high-speed passenger program earlier this year. The city is also suing the boat line in federal court for alleged violations of interstate commerce laws. City officials had reportedly said they would drop the lawsuit if the legislation is approved, but to date there has been no move to drop the lawsuit. Arguments are set for next week on a motion filed by boat line attorneys for summary judgment in the case.

Mr. O'Leary said he plans to meet with Mr. Montigny in the coming week. Any changes to the bill would force it into joint conference committee, where it would need approval before the end of the session. Any bill that is approved must also be signed by acting Gov. Jane Swift before it can become law.

"Is she engaged on this? No, she is not engaged at all," Mr. O'Leary said. He said most of the other state senators are not intimately involved. "They don't know a lot about the issue and they understand it as a struggle between two colleagues and two parts of the state. It's so late [in the legislative session] and it's so contentious," he said.

Senator O'Leary said he personally views the original legislation crafted by the transportation committee as superior to the eleventh-hour rewrite passed by the House: "I think the transportation committee bill is a bill that puts common sense ahead of politics."