Islands Block New SSA Runs

Vineyard and Nantucket Members Reject Freight Service Expansion for New Bedford Until Boat Line Halts Deficit Operations

Gazette Senior Writer

HYANNIS - In a bold show of Island solidarity, Vineyard Steamship Authority governor Kathryn A. Roessel led a move yesterday to ice any expanded ferry service out of New Bedford next year, including freight service.

"The rate-payers on Martha's Vineyard work really hard for their money and we are hemorrhaging money on freight and passenger service to New Bedford. The passenger service we are already running - I want to see that fixed before we expand to any more service," Ms. Roessel declared.

"I concur with Cassie. We've been doing this now for six years and management has been putting all their time into it and a lot of things have been let go. And I don't think the Islands can afford any more rate increases," said Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman.

"The ultimate boss, the state legislature, changed us. It's a clean slate; it has to be a clean slate. And I am concerned that we are saying no to collecting information," protested Falmouth SSA governor Galen Robbins.

"I don't think this is fair to New Bedford. They have their own member coming on next month," said Barnstable governor Robert O'Brien.

In the end the vote was 2-1 to table all work by management on developing freight service between the Vineyard and New Bedford for next year. Mr. Robbins voted no.

The vote came during the monthly boat line meeting, held at the Hyannis SSA terminal yesterday morning. The meeting took place six days after acting Gov. Jane Swift signed into law legislation that will expand the boat line board by adding voting seats from Barnstable and New Bedford. The new legislation is expected to take effect before the monthly SSA meeting in September.

Mr. O'Brien, who is a nonvoting member from Barnstable, will take the voting seat for his town. New Bedford has not announced who will be appointed to the board, but the favored appointee is widely rumored to be former city solicitor George Leontire.

Mr. Leontire, who has played a combative role with the boat line over the last four years, attended the meeting alongside Dukes County commissioner Leonard Jason Jr.

Mr. Leontire, whose aggressive stance has included an expensive lawsuit in federal court against the public boat line that is still active, appeared to take a conciliatory tack yesterday.

"The past is irrelevant. We've got to look at this as a clean slate. To say to New Bedford we are doing this because you lost money is the wrong way to look at it, in my view. And a lot of the deficit numbers were caused by bad policy decisions," Mr. Leontire said.

Mrs. Grossman disagreed. "You have a cap on what you will pay for a deficit - we do not. We lost $1.3 million, and then $1.2 million on the freight service, which was passed onto Islanders. They had to make that up, and it's the Islanders who are going to have to pay," she said. Mrs. Grossman was referring to a pilot freight program that ran between New Bedford and the Vineyard for two years. Operating losses from the program resulted in a hefty rate increase last year.

The new boat line legislation requires the city of New Bedford to pay for half of any operating loss on ferry service out of the Whaling City for the first three years. But the obligation cannot exceed $650,000 and does not apply to any losses on the passenger ferry Schamonchi.

The SSA bought the Schamonchi a year and a half ago in a surprise move engineered by former Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker. Formerly owned by a private company, the Schamonchi is now operating in its second summer as a member of the SSA fleet. The ferry operates between the privately owned Billy Woods Wharf in New Bedford and the SSA pier in Oak Bluffs.

The Schamonchi is losing about $500,000 a year, and this was the starting point for Ms. Roessel yesterday in the discussion about New Bedford freight service.

At the outset Mr. Robbins moved to have management dust off the freight service proposal that had been unanimously approved by the boat line board last fall, along with a pilot high-speed passenger service. Both programs were scuttled by New Bedford in a fit of political pique after the Dukes County Commission voted to replace Mr. Parker with Ms. Roessel.

"On Oct. 12 this board unanimously approved a freight program from New Bedford. Now that the obstacles have been removed, our position should be the same," said Mr. Robbins. "We are not voting this today, but we are trying to get a staff summary for September," he added.

"I totally disagree - think we need to be efficient with what we have," Ms. Roessel said.

"For me, I can't be too clear on this. I am not ready to go until the passenger service from New Bedford is in better shape. And I don't want to see the Authority spending any time developing a new freight service until we get our house in order," the Vineyard governor declared.

Turning to SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin, Ms. Roessel said:

"Fred, I think this is where the rubber meets the road. . . . Before we expand any service, I want to see some numbers. I have confidence in you, Fred; you can fix this. You're the businessman here, and I am just saying let's stop losing half a million dollars a year on a needed service. I want you to bring us a plan to try and fix it. I would like all consideration of expansion of ferry service to the State Pier put on hold until we can figure out how to make what we are already running cost effective."

Mr. Robbins continued to argue the other side.

"There are no studies that need to be done. All that needs to be done is for the report from October of last year to be updated. I agree that we need to fix the present passenger service from New Bedford and make it financially viable, but we are not talking about voting anything here," he said.

"The motion handicaps Mr. Raskin. It forces him to back up before he moves forward," said Eric Asendorf, who is the Falmouth member of the SSA financial advisory board.

Then Mr. Raskin jumped in.

"Don't think you are handicapping me, because this is within your purview. But I do think the board is not zeroing in on the right balancing test. . . . The subject here is how to solve the problem, if the problem is reducing traffic in Falmouth," Mr. Raskin said.

"If we were raising rates next year, I would agree with you that we don't want another headache. But if the rates are okay and we could move some trucks out of Woods Hole, I would hope that the board would do it."

But Ms. Roessel did not budge and the 2-1 vote remained unchanged.

The meeting included a variety of expressions about the end of an era, including bouquets for the members of the financial advisory board, which will be eliminated by the new legislation.

Ms. Roessel praised Robert Murphy, who has been the Vineyard member of the financial advisory board for 24 years.

Ms. Roessel and Mrs. Grossman also threw their support to Mr. Robbins, who has been buffeted by controversy in his own community. Last week the Falmouth selectmen voted 4-1 to take the first steps toward removing Mr. Robbins, because they have been unhappy with his positions on the subject of New Bedford ferry service.

"I am sickened by what I see happening in Falmouth," said Ms. Roessel. The Vineyard boat line governor has openly disagreed with Mr. Robbins in the last two months, but she said yesterday that Mr. Robbins has always worked in the best interests of his town. Ms. Roessel, who spoke out publicly last month about a sensitive executive session contract dispute with Mr. Raskin, also apologized to Mr. Robbins and Mrs. Grossman.

Mrs. Grossman read a prepared statement that included remarks about the current plight of Mr. Robbins.

"Nantucket selectmen appoint the Nantucket representative. The governor appoints a judge; however, the selectmen do not tell the representative how to vote, nor does the governor tell a judge how to decide a case," Mrs. Grossman said.

"We will succeed under our new legislation only if community leaders step back and let us attempt to work within the new enabling act without interfering with our job, which is still the lifeline to the Islands," she concluded.