Martha's Vineyard Commission Probes Flaws in New Bedford Fast Ferry Link

Gazette Senior Writer

No market study.

No clear market.

The wisdom - or folly - of considering year-round service and the range of possible impacts on the Vineyard.

These were the central themes last week when members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission dug into a Steamship Authority proposal for fast ferry service between the Vineyard and New Bedford, in the first of two Island meetings on the subject organized by Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn Roessel.

The second meeting, seeking public opinion and comment, will be held Sunday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, from 2 to 5 p.m.

Ms. Roessel told MVC members to keep in mind that the reason the boat line is considering proposals for a fast ferry "is that the Steamship Authority has been under a lot of political pressure to help move some traffic off the Cape. We are also under a lot of pressure from New Bedford to help them develop their waterfront."

But MVC executive director Mark London said: "You say the purpose is to take traffic away from Woods Hole and move it to New Bedford, but how do we know it's not just the opposite? The question of increasing accessibility to New Bedford with a fast ferry, does it pull the Island an hour closer to Boston? Presumably the trip will be faster, but what is the impact of this on the Vineyard?"

"The main thing is that you don't have adequate market research, and it seems to me very strange to undertake something like this without market research," said commission member Linda Sibley.

"The answer to your questions is that nobody really knows," replied Ms. Roessel.

The comments came during a one-hour meeting of the MVC planning and economic development subcommittee last Thursday.

Last month SSA senior managers recommended that the boat line give 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.

Boston Harbor Cruises also submitted a proposal.

The boat line board is not expected to vote on the recommendation until at least May.

Ms. Roessel described four options now facing the boat line when it comes to New Bedford ferry service:

* Add no new service.

* Grant a license to New England Fast Ferry to run high-speed ferries to the Vineyard all year long.

* Grant a license to Boston Harbor Cruises to run one high-speed passenger ferry to the Vineyard in the summer months.

* Run summer-only SSA high-speed passenger service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

Ms. Roessel said in any event the boat line plans to continue operating the conventional passenger ferry Schamonchi between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

She described the pros and cons of each option, calling the New England Fast Ferry and SSA-run service the two best options.

She also said: "Management feels that New England Fast Ferry could move move 15,000 car equivalents [from Woods Hole to New Bedford], although nobody knows for sure. And one thing to keep our eye on is how we know if it's working."

Ms. Roessel admitted that developing a new ferry service has the potential to bring more tourists to the Vineyard, and also to open up the day labor market between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

"Is that a pro or a con? Different people say different things," she said.

Commission members and executive director Mark London questioned the project closely.

Mr. London said in order to evaluate the impact of the service on the Vineyard, it is important to know how many people will use it. He asked for a better explanation of 15,000 "car equivalents."

Ms. Roessel said repeatedly that there are few clear answers.

"Management is projecting that this would remove 15,000 car equivalents from Woods Hole, but do we actually know that this would happen? No, we do not actually know," she said.

"How many passengers a year?" Mr. London pressed. Ms. Roessel thumbed through the management staff summary for the answer: "150,000 - maybe more, maybe less," she said.

Mrs. Sibley zeroed in on the plan for a long-term license against the glaring absence of a market study.

"Since there isn't any market research, I am baffled about why the Steamship Authority is pressing for long-term service. Given that we don't know what impact it's going to have on us, let alone the Cape, then you either do adequate research or you do a short-term experiment, which is really just an expensive kind of market study," she said.

Ms. Roessel said if the license is approved it will be for less than 12 years, although she did not say how much the term would be shortened.

Mrs. Sibley then quoted from the SSA management analysis which raised blunt questions about the market potential of the route. She also questioned the horse sense of running a new service and continuing to run the Schamonchi.

"You are still running the Schamonchi, which you are already losing money on; so now you're splitting the market in two. I am disturbed by the suggestion that there would need to be increased marketing, but what I read [in the staff summary] is real clear: You are going to have to market the Schamonchi to attract more passengers and the other service is going to have to be marketed to attract people. It simply suggests that the market isn't there and that we are creating a market. I think you should be looking at the need - and we don't really know what our capacity is to absorb this. Maybe it will be fine, but we don't really know," she said.

Ms. Roessel had a question for Mrs. Sibley: "If you were in my shoes, how would you go about this, what would you do?"

"You might ask the Martha's Vineyard Commission to study it," the longtime commission member replied.

Ms. Roessel cited the central mission of the boat line, outlined in its enabling legislation - to provide dependable year-round ferry service to the two Islands. Mrs. Sibley picked up the theme. She said: "The enabling legislation says to serve the needs, it doesn't say to create a need. I think you could use a good market study," she concluded.

Commission member Linda DeWitt questioned the wisdom of year-round service. "It doesn't seem like it would be profitable in any way," she said.

To which Ms. Roessel replied that in a contract with a private company that may not be of concern: "Why do we care if it doesn't make any money? It's not our money."

In the end, commission member Deborah Moore urged Ms. Roessel to develop the plan more fully before she asks the Vineyard community to take a position.

"You are asking for people's opinion, but unless you are very clear about what the options are you are going to end up misleading people," she said.