SSA Votes for Hyannis Fast Ferry; Year-Round Service Starts in May

Gazette Senior Writer

Year-round fast ferry service to and from Hyannis is coming to Oak Bluffs.

The Steamship Authority board of governors yesterday voted 4-0 to approve the proposal by Hy-Line Cruises Inc. of Hyannis to offer the service. New Bedford member David Oliveira was absent.

Hy-Line officials expect to start the service around Memorial Day, making it the third company to start a fast ferry link between the Vineyard and the mainland in the last two years.

The newest service will use the Grey Lady II, a 149-passenger ferry that served for five years on Hy-Line's route between Hyannis and Nantucket.

Hy-Line anticipates a one-way trip between Hyannis and Oak Bluffs will take 55 minutes. A round-trip would cost $52, although the company plans to offer a series of discounts.

The SSA board, which met at the Candle House in Woods Hole, granted Hy-Line a license based on a number of conditions recommended by boat line management, including making the license contingent on approval by the Oak Bluffs selectmen, along with any conditions the selectmen choose to require.

On Tuesday, prior to the vote, Oak Bluffs selectmen voted 4-0 to support the high-speed service. Selectmen chairman Roger Wey abstained, saying he believed the decision was one the SSA should make.

The vessel would dock at Dockside Marina in Oak Bluffs, where Hy-Line's seasonal ferry from Hyannis already docks. At present, Hy-Line lacks restroom facilities or dedicated parking at or near the harbor, but company officials said they plan to address those issues with the town.

The boat line issued Hy-Line the license through the end of 2006, at which time the SSA will decide whether to continue the license and under which conditions.

Fast ferry service is already available year-round from Vineyard Haven to New Bedford and seasonally from Oak Bluffs to Quonset Point, R.I.

At yesterday's meeting, Vineyard SSA governor Marc Hanover confessed to mixed feelings about the Hy-Line proposal.

"I am vehemently opposed to giving any more of our business away to anyone," said Mr. Hanover, who lives and operates a restaurant in Oak Bluffs. "Having said that, I think this is a little bit different situation.

"I'm concerned about the negative impact on the finances of the Steamship Authority," he said. "I am concerned about whether the day will come when we want to provide the service ourselves.

"But, these people are already running the service, they're just changing the boats," Mr. Hanover said. "They're reducing the level their contract calls for in carrying passengers. They do a great job, which scares me, and there's enormous public support on the Vineyard for this."

Mr. Hanover joined the other three SSA members in voting for the Hy-Line proposal.

Those members had relatively few comments.

Nantucket member Flint Ranney questioned whether the service would take away business from the boat line. "I think it's a separate market," Mr. Ranney said.

The SSA does not operate service on the Hyannis-Oak Bluffs route. An analysis written by SSA general counsel Steven Sayers, however, said the new service may siphon off customers from the Boston or mid-Cape areas who otherwise would travel to the Vineyard via Woods Hole.

Falmouth member Robert Marshall and Barnstable member Robert O'Brien said they supported management's recommendation of an initial two-year license for the Hy-Line service.

After the meeting, David Scudder, one of Hy-Line's owners, said the company is "very, very happy for this opportunity to go year-round to the Vineyard, and service them on a consistent basis, and become part of the community over there."

Mr. Scudder said the company finds the license conditions very reasonable.

Hy-Line will continue to operate a seasonal conventional passenger ferry on the route. That vessel takes one hour and 35 minutes for a one-way trip.

Conditions imposed by the boat line include:

* Imposing a higher fee structure on the high-speed service. Mr. Sayers said the fee structure is intended to protect the SSA against any financial loss resulting from the new Hy-Line competition.

Under that structure, Hy-Line would pay 10 per cent of the SSA's average revenue per passenger on the Vineyard route from the prior year for each passenger carried by Hy-Line on the Oak Bluffs-Hyannis route in excess of 100,000 passengers but no more than 120,000.

The company would pay 25 per cent of that amount for each passenger in excess of 120,000 but no more than 140,000 passengers, and 50 per cent for each passenger above 140,000 passengers. The calculation would exclude school and youth groups carried at discount rates.

* Requiring Hy-Line to address a pedestrian safety issue posed by customers crossing Ocean street near its Hyannis terminal on their way to parking lots to the west of that street.

* Requiring Hy-Line to obtain SSA approval of any new service or vessels, or replacement vessels, between the mainland and Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, prior to Hy-Line's entering into any commitment to buy or lease new or replacement vessels.