Merchants in Oak Bluffs Win Effort to Keep Ferry Running to Mid-October


Under pressure from selectmen and business leaders in Oak Bluffs, the Steamship Authority yesterday backed off a cost-savings plan that would have closed down ferry service to Oak Bluffs two weeks earlier than usual.

Shopkeepers protested, charging that the early closure at the end of September - instead of mid-October - would have been "devastating."

Yesterday, SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin approved restoring the Oak Bluffs schedule to its original status, rescuing the two weeks for downtown merchants for at least another year.

The move came after weeks of heavy lobbying.

Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello and Oak Bluffs port council member Marc Hanover met this Tuesday with Mr. Raskin. That same night, Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn Roessel sat in front of Oak Bluffs selectmen and heard their pleas to back the business interests in town.

"This town has fought for many years to keep that schedule and to extend it to Columbus Day," said selectmen chairman Richard Combra.

"It means a great deal to the economy of Oak Bluffs," said selectman Roger Wey. "The Steamship Authority might save $30,000, but to Oak Bluffs, this might be $100,000."

Ms. Roessel argued that she had to balance the interests of Oak Bluffs with the Islandwide desire to control SSA costs. She agreed that the cost-saving proposal didn't represent a huge sum of money, but she said that SSA managers are trying to contain rate hikes.

"We need to save money," she said.

She also shied away from the demand to put pressure on Mr. Raskin. "The board should really not be micro-managing operations," she added. "I make a big effort not to meddle in operational decisions."

The Vineyard SSA governor was blunt with selectmen in their Tuesday meeting. "You're taking a very alarmist view, thinking that Oak Bluffs is going to turn into a ghost town," she said.

She pointed to other ferries serving the town and suggested that tourists arriving in Vineyard Haven could ride the transit bus to Oak Bluffs.

But after yesterday's action at the monthly boat line meeting in Nantucket, Ms. Roessel said: "I'd like to thank management for responding to concerns expressed by people on the Vineyard. This is something that I didn't want to get in the middle of."

Mr. Raskin said senior managers had examined the traffic patterns and concluded that traffic is brisk enough to warrant keeping the terminal open. "We thought the boats were running empty but when we took a look, we found that they really weren't running empty," he said.

The SSA is only promising to preserve the status quo for one year, in part because a reconstruction project on the Oak Bluffs terminal may be under way by 2005.

Selectmen complained at the Tuesday meeting that the cutback on the schedule was never discussed with them. "There were quick and rash decisions made about Oak Bluffs," said Mr. Rebello.

Paul Strauss, an Oak Bluffs resident and a county commissioner, said the SSA didn't spend enough time considering the impact of trimming two weeks off the Oak Bluffs schedule.

Mr. Strauss also called on Ms. Roessel to do a better job talking to the town leaders. "We need more communication with you," he said.

Again, Ms. Roessel questioned the logic of relying on the SSA to boost shoulder-season business in one port town. She directed her question at Mr. Strauss: "As a county commissioner, what would you say to Aquinnah and Edgartown, why should the Steamship forego cuts to help merchants in one town?"

Ms. Roessel ended the meeting on a conciliatory note, saying "I'm happy to come see you guys anytime. Just call me."