SSA Supports New Ferry Plan

Boat Line Managers Recommend Private Firm for High-Speed, Year-Round Service Between New Bedford and Vineyard

Gazette Senior Writer

Senior managers at the Steamship Authority are expected to recommend today that the boat line issue a long-term license to New England Fast Ferry LLC to operate year-round, high-speed passenger service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

New England Fast Ferry, a newly formed consortium based in Falmouth, is one of two companies that responded to a request for proposals (RFP) two months ago.

The ferry company is requesting a 12-year license, the Gazette has learned.

Boston Harbor Cruises also submitted a proposal, but it is understood the Boston company will wind up in second place today after a detailed staff review that has been under way for weeks.

The timing of the recommendation is somewhat awkward, as Boston Harbor Cruises is planning a demonstration of high-speed ferry service tomorrow in Woods Hole, Vineyard Haven and New Bedford.

The schedule for the demonstration was still undecided at press time yesterday.

A formal review of the management recommendation on the RFP will take place at the monthly boat line meeting next Thursday morning in Woods Hole. SSA governors are not expected to vote on the proposal until the April meeting. If the license request is approved, the ferry service is not expected to begin until next year.

The proposal from New England Fast Ferry was the only one of the two that offered to run year-round service; year-round service was listed as advantageous in an addendum to the RFP.

The proposal calls for using two, 100-foot-long, propeller-driven boats for the service, with one boat running between the State Pier in New Bedford and the SSA dock in Vineyard Haven, and one running between State Pier and the SSA dock in Oak Bluffs. The year-round component of the service would only run into Vineyard Haven since the Oak Bluffs wharf is not suitable for winter docking.

The Steamship Authority also examined the feasibility of running high-speed ferry service itself, but it is understood that managers will recommend against SSA service. Top managers at the boat line believe it is unwise to put SSA capital at risk to test a new market, especially against the backdrop of more urgent capital needs that include replacing the ferry Islander and refurbishing the Oak Bluffs wharf.

In short, expanded ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard is now well down on the list of priorities for capital spending at the public boat line.

The decision to recommend issuing a license to a private carrier for expanded New Bedford service is expected to trigger a labor dispute with at least one maritime union. But SSA managers reportedly are unconcerned about union fallout because the license is for a new service and the boat line still plans to run the summer passenger ferry Schamonchi.

"There are two different markets here. The Schamonchi would be the cheaper ride and the longer ride," Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel told the members of the Dukes County Commission in a brief report about high-speed service between New Bedford and the Vineyard on Wednesday night. At the time of her report, the staff recommendation was not yet complete.

But it is understood that New England Fast Ferry came out the clear winner in the management review that will go out to board members today.

New England Fast ferry has offered to pay a license fee of about $100,000 a year to the boat line, depending on how many passengers are carried. The two ferries - which are not yet built - would carry 149 passengers each. Ticket prices are planned at $20 for a one-way passage, with a variety of discounts available for commuters, senior citizens and children. New England Fast Ferry plans to run a route through Quicks Hole, while Boston Harbor Cruises had proposed to run through the Woods Hole channel, which is shorter but more hazardous in the summer months because of heavy traffic with recreational boats.

Because it is still only a proposal, there are many issues left to be settled if the board of governors votes to adopt the recommendation in April. Unsettled details include lease terms for the use of the State Pier in New Bedford, a plan to share parking revenues from New Bedford and protection clauses for the Steamship Authority in the event the service fails.

The request for proposals that went out early this year followed two years of wrestling over expanded ferry service from New Bedford, both on the Cape and Islands and in the state legislature.

Late last year the state legislature adopted new enabling legislation that expanded the board of governors from three to five members by adding voting members from New Bedford and Barnstable.

Along the way a proposal for a trial high-speed summer passenger service and a separate freight service was approved by the boat line board, but later abandoned after New Bedford city officials pulled the plug on the program in the middle of a political storm that raged for months.

The staff review of the RFP included a detailed of review of other options. SSA chief executive officer Fred Raskin said this week that boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson explored a variety of creative ways to move traffic out of Falmouth and Hyannis, including moving the ferry Nantucket onto the New Bedford run and running some kind of freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

Last fall, Ms. Roessel said she would not support expanded SSA service to New Bedford until the boat line found a way to stem the heavy operating losses on the Schamonchi. Purchased by the SSA two years ago under the watch of former boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker, the Schamonchi lost some $800,000 last year.

Boat line managers are also expected to confront the tricky subject of lost revenues - both from the ferry Schamonchi and from the Woods Hole run - because any new service is expected to divert some traffic from SSA ferries. The lost revenue phenomenon is often referred to as "skimming the cream" when it applies to summer passenger ferries which operate in the lucrative summer months and not in the unprofitable winter months.

Chartered to provide dependable, year-round service to Island residents, the boat line is allowed by state law to license its competitors in order to protect its own revenue stream.