Two Island Members Balk at Ferry Plan For Freight Service


Testing the power of their weighted vote for the first time since the board was expanded, the two Island Steamship Authority governors yesterday blocked a proposal to launch seasonal freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer, calling for more study.

"As we develop New Bedford service, I feel it's more important to do it right than to do it right now," declared Vineyard SSA governor Cassie Roessel.

"When we rush into things we make a decision and find out it's wrong. I think it's important to plan it and plan it well. We've got to make sure it's the right thing," said Nantucket governor Grace Grossman.

The comments came during the October meeting of the boat line board of governors, held in Woods Hole yesterday morning. It marked the second meeting with a reconstituted five-member board that now includes voting members from New Bedford and Barnstable. More than once the governors lapsed into bickering as they struggled to find common ground as a new board.

Falmouth boat line governor and board chairman Galen Robbins pushed hard for the board to adopt some kind of freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer, either by moving the ferry Katama onto the New Bedford run or by expanding the ferry Sankaty and using it for New Bedford service. Mr. Robbins suggested that the service could be used to carry some passengers as well as freight, except on hazardous runs, and he also suggested that the freight boat could be used to carry excess standby automobiles off the Vineyard on weekdays.

The Falmouth governor reminded the two Island members that a year ago they had voted to back freight service to New Bedford, even though the project was later killed by New Bedford city officials.

"Some of the barriers we had last year were eliminated, and I just think this is the right thing to do," Mr. Robbins said.

Barnstable governor Robert O'Brien agreed.

"We voted this a year ago - now a whole year has gone by and we're saying we've got to plan it, we've got to look at this thing. We're never going to know unless we try it - let's try it and see if it works. We can't just keep putting it off with the idea that we have to study it more," Mr. O'Brien said.

New Bedford governor David Oliveira also said he favored the proposal.

The freight project does not have the support of management; after a staff review, SSA chief executive officer Fred Raskin recommended waiting until all the alternatives were evaluated.

"If this freight service is to become a valuable and usable one, it's going to have to be a long-term commitment because truck companies have routes and they need to plan where they will travel," Mr. Raskin said. "I am just concerned about putting money into a service that we may decide not to do in a year or two."

There was some dispute over the numbers - the staff review found that freight service would cost the boat line about $400,000 next year, but Mr. Robbins had prepared his own analysis that found the service would break even.

At any rate, Mr. Robbins said the plan approved by the board last year was more costly.

"The board approved a project last year that would have cost us $750,000. At the end of the day, from a mainland perspective, from an Islander's perspective, from a rate-payer's perspective, this is a break-even proposition," Mr. Robbins said.

"I haven't heard anything that has changed my mind," replied Ms. Roessel. After a series of missteps over rules and procedure, the vote was 3-2 on both freight proposals, which killed them because the two Island governors voted together and each Island has a weighted vote of 35 per cent.

In other New Bedford business, the board also withdrew a plan to reduce the operating schedule on the passenger ferry Schamonchi during the shoulder season, after a plea from former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire to leave the schedule in place.

The reduced schedule was proposed by management as a cost-cutting measure; boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson reported that the passenger ferry lost $800,000 this year, up from a loss of $500,000 last year, its first year under ownership by the boat line, in part because of the allocation of fixed costs.

The new plan called for ending Schamonchi service just after Labor Day and running only on weekends between Memorial Day and June 15. The reduced schedule was projected to save the boat line more than $250,000 in the coming year.

The proposal was developed after Ms. Roessel said two months ago that she would not support any expanded New Bedford ferry service until a plan was devised to reduce the operating losses on the Schamonchi.

But yesterday Mr. Leontire and Oak Bluffs selectman Roger Wey, who are members of the newly formed port council, urged the board to abandon the plan to save money on the Schamonchi run.

"I would be very careful about reducing the service from New Bedford. I believe it is penny wise and pound foolish. The service is not the problem, it's the kind of service that's the problem. It's the service model that's the problem," Mr. Leontire said.

"The shoulder seasons are important, and I think the Schamonchi service should be kept in place," Mr. Wey said.

In the end Ms. Roessel said she was persuaded. "I am listening to New Bedford and Oak Bluffs over here saying the same thing," she said.

Also yesterday, the boat line board voted to adopt a $67 million operating budget for the coming year, along with a plan to reduce excursion fares on the Vineyard run next year and change the start date for off-season excursion fares on the Nantucket run.

On the Vineyard run, excursion fares will go down from $71 to $65 in peak season and from $43 to $39 in the off-season. A plan to reduce excursion fares on the Nantucket run by $5 was replaced with the plan to advance the start date for off-season fares from Oct. 15 to Sept. 15.

The 16-day requirement for all excursion fares will be eliminated beginning Jan. 1.

The board also voted to approve a plan to split $1.5 million in federal grant money with the city of New Bedford. Originally earmarked for a fast ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard, half of the grant money will now be used by New Bedford to develop a passenger terminal near the State Pier. The boat line will use the other half for the Oak Bluffs pier reconstruction project. The arrangement is subject to review by SSA counsel, and Mr. Raskin said it will include the stipulation that the SSA is not bound to provide any particular passenger service to New Bedford.

Mr. Oliveira said New Bedford plans to develop a passenger terminal to service the summer cruise ships that visit the Whaling City in the summer months.