SSA Rate Cuts Gather Backing

New Bedford and Barnstable Join Expanded Boat Line Governing Board for Monthly Meeting on the Vineyard Thursday

Gazette Senior Writer

No rate increases and a possible reduction in excursion fares - these are the key monetary themes this week as Steamship Authority governors prepare to discuss a preliminary budget for the coming year.

"We are hopeful that we will see some modest rate reductions on the Vineyard in excursion fares," said SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin yesterday.

The draft 2003 budget is set to be unveiled at the monthly boat line meeting on the Vineyard Thursday morning. The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

The meeting will mark history as a newly constituted board of governors convenes for the first time. The enabling legislation for the boat line was changed by state lawmakers this year after a four-year hostile campaign by New Bedford to win a seat at the table.

The legislation, recently signed into law, expanded the board of governors from three to five members by adding voting seats for New Bedford and Barnstable. The two Islands will retain control of the board through weighted votes.

Barnstable has had a nonvoting seat on the board for 11 years. Robert O'Brien, the Barnstable nonvoting member, will take his seat at the table as a voting member Thursday. Joining the board from New Bedford will be David J. Oliveira, an attorney and former staffer with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Mr. Oliveira was nominated by New Bedford mayor Frederick M. Kalisz early this month over former city solicitor George Leontire. Mr. Leontire, the combative former city attorney who waged war against the Vineyard and Nantucket for four years, will instead join the seven-member port council.

Also created under the new enabling legislation, the port council replaces the old financial advisory board. The council includes a member from each port town, including Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, Nantucket, Falmouth, Barnstable, New Bedford and Fairhaven.

At press time yesterday, four of the seven members had been appointed to the port council. In addition to Mr. Leontire from New Bedford, Flint Ranney will serve as the Nantucket member, Robert Jones will serve as the Barnstable member and Brian Bowcock will serve as the Fairhaven member. Mr. Ranney is a prominent Nantucket realtor and former member of the financial advisory board. Mr. Jones is a member of the Barnstable harbor committee who has been active in Steamship Authority affairs for some time. Mr. Bowcock is a Fairhaven selectman and former member of the town finance committee.

Selectmen in Falmouth, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury have not made appointments yet to the port council, although Tisbury selectmen are expected possibly to vote on an appointment at their regular meeting tonight. Two applicants have submitted letters of interest in Tisbury: Earle (Sandy) Ray and Robert M. Doyle. Mr. Ray is a prominent businessman and the owner of a large insurance company on the Vineyard who has served on numerous civic boards over the years. Mr. Doyle is a former seasonal resident with a background in real estate management who recently moved to the Vineyard year-round.

In Oak Bluffs the port council appointment is not expected for another week or two. Town executive secretary Casey Sharpe said yesterday that selectmen set a deadline of Sept. 20 for letters of interest, but no letters have been received yet. Last week Todd Rebello, chairman of the selectmen, said businessman Marc Hanover had expressed an interest in the appointment. "I would be excited about appointing someone like Marc. He is not a political figure but he has the background, and this is a very important selection to us," Mr. Rebello said.

The Thursday agenda for the meeting will also include a discussion about the planning schedule for replacing the ferry Islander, and a report on a plan to launch a web-based reservation system in 2003. Mr. Raskin said he expects the web-based reservation system to be ready in pilot form in the next two or three months. "I am hopeful that by next year people will be able to initiate a reservation and get a confirmation number. I am not sure whether they will be able to change the reservation 10 or 12 times, but we are working on this," Mr. Raskin said.

Mr. Raskin said he is also working to simplify the complicated hierarchy of rules that make up the boat line reservation system.

But much of the discussion of the day is expected to revolve around the preliminary budget. The budget has been circulated to board members but will not be made public until Thursday morning, Mr. Raskin said. The CEO said during the discussion about tariffs for the coming year, he plans to float the idea of charging extra money when the boat line runs unscheduled trips. Typically unscheduled trips are run during peak travel times such as Friday and Sunday nights to help move cars to one side or the other. "When we pull a boat for an extra trip we may decide to charge extra. These extra voyages cost us money and people have come to expect them, but there is a cost affiliated with this on-demand service," Mr. Raskin said.

The agenda for the meeting was still not complete by late yesterday, and it was unclear whether the issue of freight service from New Bedford would surface again. In a move led by Vineyard governor Kathryn A. Roessel at the boat line meeting last month, the two Island members voted to kill any startup freight program for the coming year, over the objections of Falmouth governor and board chairman Galen Robbins. Ms. Roessel said it would be irresponsible to expand ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard while the passenger service on the Schamonchi is already losing more than $500,000 a year. Mr. Robbins argued strongly that the SSA should at least explore the option of running freight service between the State Pier and the Vineyard next year.

A pilot freight program ran for two years with a contracted carrier, and last year the boat line governors had voted to run a more permanent program using an SSA ferry. But early this year New Bedford city officials played their trump card in the high-stakes political game to take over the boat line, pulling the plug on both the freight program and also a plan to run a pilot high-speed passenger ferry program.

Under the new enabling legislation for the SSA, New Bedford is required to pay half of any operating deficit on ferry service to the Islands, up to $650,000. The obligation does not apply to any losses on the passenger ferry Schamonchi.