Congressman Ties New Bedford to Full Pay for Any Ferry Deficit

Gazette Senior Writer

If New Bedford and the state legislature want the Steamship Authority to run ferry service between the Whaling City and the Islands, then the port should agree to pay 100 per cent of any deficit incurred.

That was the opinion of Cong. William Delahunt, delivered bluntly in a conversation with the Gazette yesterday morning.

"I find the reticence by New Bedford to the suggestion that they share a deficit rather telling. . . . It would appear that their faith in the economics of what they are doing is somewhat guarded - 50 per cent [share of the deficit to be paid by New Bedford] for the first two years? Why not 100 per cent forever?" Mr. Delahunt said. "This all gives the lie to whether everybody really believes this is going to work," he added.

Mr. Delahunt visited the Vineyard for the day on Monday. The occasion for the visit was a small ceremony and announcement about federal aid for business owners in Tisbury after the fire at the Tisbury Inn this winter. The aid will come in the form of a package of low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration.

Elected to the seat in the 10th congressional district six years ago, Mr. Delahunt, who is the former Norfolk County district attorney, spoke with the Gazette about an array of issues, from the chilly outlook for the national economy to the far warmer local story of loans for small businesses on Main street, Vineyard Haven.

"This is a good day, and it's not just about the Tisbury Inn but the whole community. It's good to be home," said Mr. Delahunt, who appeared relaxed and ready to talk.

Mr. Delahunt praised the recent work of Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, who is now battling a bill to restructure the 42-year-old boat line that is the lifeline to the two Islands.

"I think Rob O'Leary is doing well by Martha's Vineyard, and I think I said this some time ago, that if the state legislature believes there ought to be some sort of ferry service to New Bedford, then let them pick up the whole deficit," Mr. Delahunt said.

He also praised a letter that was written to Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham last week by Fred C. Raskin, the newly appointed chief executive officer of the SSA.

Mr. Raskin called on the state Senate to step aside and let the boat line make its own business decisions when it comes to ferry service out of New Bedford.

Mr. Delahunt said the letter made sense.

"What about just doing what the CEO said in his letter last week, which is leaving it up to the authority to decide as a business matter?" he said.

When it comes to the state legislature and the SSA, Mr. Delahunt did not shy from the word meddling.

"Of course it is meddling … call it what you want, if the state legislature was really concerned about the economic development of New Bedford, why don't they invest in some real economic development programs and develop some thoughtful opportunities for New Bedford? - but do it the right away, step up and ensure that the Islands won't have to pay a penny more," he said.

Mr. Delahunt had blunt and heartfelt words about the current state of the national economy, including the repercussions of the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

"We are not being straight with the American people; corporate America hasn't been straight, but we have a responsibility also. . . . People are being gamed," he said.

Talk about the economy led to talk about consumers, the real estate market and interest rates. Mr. Delahunt sketched a vivid picture of a house of cards that is tottering precariously.

"In 1997 I voted against the balanced budget act. I said we will be here this day, and here we are. "We have been fiscally irresponsible, down in Washington as well as in Massachusetts - how can you have a two-trillion-dollar tax cut and expect we are not going to have deficits?" he said, adding:

"I have had concerns for some time about where things are heading. It's really the consumer that drives this economy, and there is a return to the late 1980s and early nineties that has hyper-inflated the values of real estate. Once that is corrected, it is going to rock people. The low interest rates are in part driving the real estate market, and that is what I am fearful of, because it has to change," he said.

"We are back-borrowing, and the interest rates can't stay low forever. The recipe is there, all the right ingredients are there, it's like the perfect storm. I don't like what I see."

Mr. Delahunt acknowledged that the stock market declines are now beginning to hit home hard in his district, which is populated by many people who are retired.

"I don't want to sound like a populist, but I think people need to get mad as hell," the congressman said.

He said his best example of what he calls the denial of responsibility by corporate America is the bankruptcy reform act, recently approved after years of debate and now in conference committee. Mr. Delahunt, who was a leading opponent of the bill, described what amounted to manhandling by the credit card industry.

"They do four billion solicitations a year, and anything that bore any responsibility on the part of corporate America was killed," he said. Among other things, the credit card companies killed a provision in the legislation that would require an adult family member to sign off on credit card agreements with students and other young people.

"They said that's interfering with the marketplace? This is not capitalism, this is social Darwinism. It's preying on the weak," he said.

Mr. Delahunt said it comes down to values.

"Really all this is about values - and this is the value crowd, you know, family values. We need retirement security and health care, and how are we spending our money? On a missile defense system. We seem to forget that on 9/11 they did it with a knife, not a missile launched from North Korea," he said.

In the end the congressman returned to the more cheerful news of the day in downtown Tisbury.

"These are the kinds of things that really make a difference in the district - and it goes back to the whole thing about values and where we are heading today. It is also about a small community and how you can make a difference," he said.