The problems of the New Bedford fast ferry that Dan Greenbaum wrote about in the Sept. 11 Gazette may also be viewed in a wider context. His historical background needs expansion both in length and depth.
In its 1950s beginnings the Steamship Authority was said to be run from the New Bedford newspaper publisher’s office. Certainly the city’s interests were well attended to, with plentiful boat line employment afloat and on the waterfront, not without strong hints of political patronage; and of course businesses profited from all the transiting passenger and vehicle traffic.
But the traffic stream dried up. Islanders switched most of their buying to the Cape; motor vehicles rode the shorter, quicker, cheaper Woods Hole route; in winter boats ran empty across Buzzards Bay. The New Bedford link created serious deficits, but the city overplayed its hand, insisting on no cuts in its service. With some skilled political footwork, the Islands used that to persuade the legislature to revise the authority charter. The city lost its seat and its service, the boatline deficits ended, and New Bedford pols retired to lick their wounds and plot for a return to control.
That became possible in the 1990s when the city won some key legislature posts and pushed through the expansion of authority voting membership. However, the voting is weighted and the Islands, with 35 per cent each, still retain control if they stick together. The “if” explains subsequent New Bedford maneuvers to split them. There are also some Vineyarders who would abandon the isolationist sandbar and ally with the regionally-thinking city to point the SSA in a more progressive direction. To them, fast ferry ventures are but one aspect of linking us better to the larger world.
The years will bring many changes in our water transportation needs, but pressuring the SSA to experiment with our money on solutions is not the answer. As Mr. Greenbaum recommends, let private enterprise take the risks. And be at least skeptical of any proposal emanating from New Bedford.
W.R. Deeble lives in West Tisbury.