New Bedford Presses for Fast Ferries in First Expanded SSA Board Meeting

Gazette Senior Writer

After a few scant minutes of statesmanship, the newly appointed Steamship Authority governor from New Bedford quickly changed tack yesterday, unveiling a surprise plan for fast ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard and mouthing an old sales pitch from last year.

"I am hesitant to bring in a new proposal in my first meeting, but unfortunately time is of the essence, and there is a proposal that has been brought to my attention and that is the idea of private high-speed ferry service," said New Bedford SSA governor David J. Oliveira during the monthly boat line meeting held in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. "It seems to me we should be moving forward on this, because we might not be able to take advantage of it a year from now," he added.

Mr. Oliveira was appointed to the boat line board two weeks ago. Yesterday marked the first meeting with a reconstituted five-member board that now includes voting members from New Bedford and Barnstable.

Mr. Oliveira wasted little time before he presented the board with a formal proposal for a license request from Boston Harbor Cruises to operate high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer.

The New Bedford governor said the high-speed ferry service could replace the passenger ferry Schamonchi and save the boat line hundreds of thousands of dollars.

No one on the boat line board or in SSA management had seen the proposal before yesterday. Mr. Oliveira admitted later that he was not very familiar with the proposal, which had come to him from former city solicitor George Leontire. Questioned later about the genesis of the proposal, Mr. Oliveira said he had "sat in on" one meeting with Mr. Leontire and Boston Harbor Cruises, but he could not remember exactly when the meeting took place.

But at the outset Mr. Oliveira pitched the high-speed ferry plan like a practiced salesman.

"While it might be nice to spend all winter talking about this, there are only so many high-speed boats available, and in the interest of moving forward, I suggest we be ready to make this decision by the next meeting. If we delay, this proposal may not be on the table. There is a risk of losing the vessel," he said.

Mr. Oliveira only brought enough copies of the high-speed ferry proposal for board members. But an examination of the proposal later revealed that his description of the plan was not entirely accurate.

Mr. Oliveira described the proposal as a five-year license request and he also said that Boston Harbor Cruises had a brand new high-speed ferry ready to go.

The proposal carries a 10-year license request with an option for the boat line to buy the high-speed ferry at the end of five years. The high-speed ferry is also not built yet. Boston Harbor Cruises wants to run a 300-passenger catamaran between New Bedford and Oak Bluffs next summer. The company is proposing to pay the boat line a low license fee of 50 cents per passenger.

The pitch for the high-speed ferry was similar to a campaign last fall, when former Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker and Mr. Leontire joined forces to press for a pilot high-speed ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

The project later died after Mr. Parker was not reappointed by the Dukes County Commission and Mr. Leontire killed the project in a fit of political pique.

Mr. Leontire, who is a member of the newly formed port council called for in the latest SSA legislation, sat near Mr. Oliveira and picked up the promotional theme.

"There is a lot of talk about the costs of the Steamship Authority. This is a private carrier. Right now you are losing $600,000 a year [on the Schamonchi]. If you license this carrier, you will save $3 million over five years, plus you will get a licensing fee of $100,000 a year. In saying no to this proposal, you are saying no to the good of the Steamship Authority," said Mr. Leontire.

Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico, who attended the meeting, remarked on Mr. Leontire's participation in the discussion. "I hope this isn't going to come down to having an extra board member sitting here at every meeting," he said.

The surprise license request for a private high-speed ferry service followed a polite exchange when Falmouth SSA governor and board chairman Galen Robbins welcomed Mr. Oliveira to the board and introduced the members of the port council.

Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn Roessel added her voice to the welcoming remarks.

"I think you and I are going to get along, because I want what you want, which is sensible, sustainable service for New Bedford. We just really need to get our arms around where we are going, so we can come up with a plan that makes sense for everybody," Ms. Roessel said. "It can't be done overnight and I'll tell you it can't be done in time for next season," she added.

But the tone changed after Mr. Oliveira unveiled the fast ferry plan and Ms. Roessel remarked on the push for a quick decision.

"My father always told me, never to fall for the old sales gambit that you've got to make up your mind today," she said.

Nantucket governor Grace Grossman agreed.

"This looks very interesting, but we rushed into this before and we found out that everything was not what it seemed," she said.

SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin also said there was no need to hurry.

"I caution against us rushing into anything. There are boats everywhere," he said.

Ms. Roessel also made a remark about the environmental impacts from high-speed ferries that drew a bristling response from Mr. Oliveira later in the meeting.

"Before I moved back to Massachusetts I worked for some of the best environmental legislators in the country," said Mr. Oliveira, referring to his work as a staff counsel for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "I was not aware of any environmental risk from high-speed ferries. I am astounded and outraged to learn that there is environmental risk and I move that we immediately suspend all high-speed ferry service to Nantucket," he said.

No one at the head table responded. But it was clear that the brief honeymoon was over.

Mr. Robbins unveiled his own conceptual plan for New Bedford ferry service yesterday, sketching an idea for lengthening the freight ferry Sankaty and using it to run freight, passenger and car service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. Mr. Robbins suggested that if the Sankaty was put into service on the New Bedford run, the boat line could save operating costs by shortening the season for the Schamonchi.

"I'm not proposing new service; I'm proposing an idea that should be looked into by staff," Mr. Robbins said.

In the end the boat line board agreed only to have management take a long look at ferry service out of New Bedford and evaluate all the various alternatives.

"I think the focus starts big and then narrows," Ms. Roessel said.

In other business yesterday the boat line board also got its first glimpse of a preliminary $67 million operating budget for the coming year. Mr. Raskin presented the budget, which includes a proposal to reduce excursion fares on both the Nantucket and the Vineyard runs next year.

If the proposal is adopted, excursion fares will go down from $71 to $65 in peak season and from $43 to $39 in the off-season on the Vineyard run. On the Nantucket run fares would drop from $165 to $160 in peak season and from $105 to $100 in the off-season.

Mr. Raskin is also proposing eliminating the 16-day requirement for excursion fares and getting rid of some of the restrictions on preferred travel for Island residents.

The only rate increases proposed for the coming year include a request for an increase of 50 cents per ton for barge unloading on Nantucket, and a proposal to add a surcharge for unscheduled trips used to clear up standby lines during peak travel periods.

The budget will be voted on at the October board meeting.

The board and the public also heard a conceptual presentation from engineer Carl Walker on the long-range plan to replace the ferry Islander.