Changes Underway in SSA Priorities

An Olive Branch Toward Nantucket; Islander Meeting Will Be August 12; Can Rates Be Held Down?

Gazette Senior Writer

Change is the watchword these days at the Steamship Authority, palpable and overnight change.

The sudden death of Nantucket governor Grace Grossman two weeks ago has left a gaping hole on the SSA board, and the departure last week of chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin has resulted in an immediate change in the top post at the boat line which is the lifeline to the two Islands.

Longtime SSA treasurer Wayne Lamson stepped in as acting general manager late last week.

An overflow crowd attended a warm and moving memorial service for Mrs. Grossman on Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Nantucket. A number of Vineyard residents were in attendance, but there were faces notably missing, including three of Mrs. Grossman's fellow board members: Vineyard governor Kathryn A. Roessel, New Bedford governor David Oliveira and Falmouth governor Robert Marshall. Also absent was Mr. Raskin, who had become estranged from Mrs. Grossman and the people of Nantucket in recent months.

At the time of her death, Mrs. Grossman was at the forefront of an effort to examine splitting the boat line into two separate entities. The people of Nantucket were unanimously behind the effort.

Yesterday Mr. Lamson, who has already begun to project an air of quiet confidence and stability, outlined a short-term agenda for the boat line that includes an open invitation to Nantucket to return to the fold.

"I plan to open up lines of communication and offer whatever assistance we can," Mr. Lamson said. "I plan to speak with the selectmen - we're more than willing to sit down and meet with them on a formal or informal basis. So we'll see how that goes," he added.

Mr. Lamson said the appointment of a Nantucket governor will be up to the Nantucket selectmen, acting in their capacity as county commissioners.

The appointment is expected before the next boat line meeting, set for later this month on Nantucket.

"This is entirely up to the selectmen," Mr. Lamson said. He said there is no provision in the enabling legislation for an interim appointment. Mrs. Grossman was reappointed to a third three-year term in January.

At the July meeting in Hyannis the SSA governors drew up a punch list for Mr. Lamson that included an overhaul of the reservations system and a look at possibly replacing the Flying Cloud, the hapless high-speed ferry that has been plagued with mechanical problems since the day it went on line. The Flying Cloud operates only on the Nantucket run.

Mr. Lamson said the problems with the Flying Cloud will be addressed, but not without the full participation of Nantucket.

"We're going to look at all the options, but that will take a little time," he said.

Mr. Lamson said overhauling the reservation system is the main priority.

"The reservation system is job one. We are going to look at all the problems - why people can't get through on the phone, improvements to our internet system and allocation of space on the boats," he said, adding: "I have a meeting this afternoon with some key people to look at the problems and to see what we can do to solve some of these things, both in the short term and the long term. I am committed to doing everything we can to improve our operation. We may not be able to do it all in the next couple of weeks, but I know we're going to try hard."

Mr. Lamson also said the proposed design is now complete for the replacement vessel for the ferry Islander, and he said a meeting will be held on the Vineyard on August 12 to hear public comment on the final design. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Vineyard Haven terminal.

The ferry is planned as a double-ended vessel with two pilot houses and lift decks that can carry extra cars on the freight level. Mr. Lamson said the board of governors will be asked to vote to put the new ferry out to bid this month. The estimated cost of the ferry is $22 million to $25 million, but Mr. Lamson said SSA managers will have a more precise number by the time of the public meeting on the Vineyard. The tentative launch date for the new ferry is 2006.

As budget planning begins for the coming year, Mr. Lamson said he is committed to keeping rates down, but with traffic off this year that may translate to other expense cuts, including cuts in service.

"Raising rates is a last resort, and we are going to go back and look at everything including our operating schedules for the coming year, because we may need to go back and look at ways that we could reduce costs," Mr. Lamson said.

He said senior managers will also examine all the capital projects now on deck for possible cutbacks.

"Everything is open at this point," Mr. Lamson concluded.