Nantucket SSA Governor Approaches Beacon Hill on Boat Line Break-Up

Gazette Senior Writer

A gulf of tension between the two Islands over Steamship Authority issues grew noticeably wider this week, when news surfaced that Nantucket Steamship Authority governor Grace Grossman has privately approached state officials about the possibility of splitting the boat line into two separate entities.

It is understood that in recent weeks and months Mrs. Grossman has met with high-ranking state officials both in Boston and on Nantucket to discuss SSA affairs in general and the possible breakup of the boat line in particular.

These meetings took place without the knowledge of the four other members of the boat line board of governors.

Reached at her office on Nantucket yesterday, Mrs. Grossman would not comment.

But it is understood that Mrs. Grossman has, among other things, met with Transportation Secretary Daniel A. Grabauskas, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Sen. Therese Murray, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

It is understood that Mrs. Grossman met with the secretary of transportation while he was visiting Nantucket, and that she traveled to Boston to meet with the other high-ranking legislators.

Mrs. Grossman, who was unanimously appointed to a third term by the Nantucket selectmen last week, is wildly popular on Nantucket, where she has virtually unanimous support among the island people. An active Democrat, she also has powerful political connections on Beacon Hill.

Any plan to break apart the state-chartered boat line is a potential political powder keg.

The Steamship Authority board of governors has struggled to get its legs in the aftermath of a powerful political play by the city of New Bedford two years ago to force the boat line to reopen ferry service between the Whaling City and the Vineyard.

New legislation was adopted a year and half ago expanding the board from three to five members by adding voting members from Barnstable and New Bedford.

The two Islands retained control of the board through a weighted vote. But in the last year fault lines have threatened to undermine the traditional bedrock of unity between the Vineyard and Nantucket.

Increasingly Mrs. Grossman and Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel have found themselves on opposite sides of an array of issues. Tension between Mrs. Grossman and senior managers at the SSA have added to the problem.

The result has been increasing isolation for Nantucket.

It all reached a peak at the November boat line meeting which was held on Nantucket.

At that meeting a crowd of 100 Nantucket residents - including leaders from every business association on the island - turned out to protest an advertising initiative with J. Crew that had been launched by SSA senior managers for the popular Christmas Stroll weekend. No one on Nantucket had been consulted about the plan to hand out J. Crew catalogues at the Stroll - and Nantucketers were up in arms.

But the protest fell on deaf ears, and when Mrs. Grossman made a motion to jettison the plan, she could not even muster a second from her fellow board members for the sake of discussion.

It turned out the J. Crew plan was abandoned, but the damage was done, and two months later Nantucket residents and elected officials are still smarting. The explosive meeting has been played and replayed on local cable television stations on both Islands in recent weeks.

"Until a few years ago we were family - disagreeing at times, but respecting one another. But times and representatives have changed and it's not like that anymore," Mrs. Grossman said in a woman-in-the-news interview with the Gazette last week.

"The mission is to take care of the Islands. But I think the mission and the vision have been abandoned," the Nantucket governor said in another interview last summer.

She was not alone in that view.

"I think we are just kind of being ignored," said Flint Ranney, the Nantucket member of the port council, at the time.

It is now understood that the November SSA meeting was the straw that broke the camel's back and led directly to this new private move to explore the possibility of breaking the SSA in two.

The 43-year-old boat line is chartered to provide dependable year-round ferry service to the two Islands.

It is understood that Mrs. Grossman's conversations with state officials included blunt remarks about the treatment of Nantucket, both by management and by other board members. It is also understood that Mrs. Grossman has spoken to state officials about spiraling costs and exorbitant fares on the Nantucket run.

There is currently no legislation pending on Steamship Authority affairs, and it is unclear whether any proposal to split the boat line into two entities could gain momentum on Beacon Hill.

The New Bedford-sponsored legislation that finally culminated with new enabling legislation a year and a half ago was divisive and occupied the attention of state lawmakers for many months.

News of Mrs. Grossman's activity behind the scenes and private meetings on Beacon Hill first surfaced in a story in the Martha's Vineyard Times yesterday.

The subject did not come up during the monthly boat line meeting, held in Vineyard Haven yesterday morning.

Mrs. Grossman did not attend the meeting because of the winter weather.