Task Force Meets on Cape

By JULIA WELLS

MASHPEE - A chorus of Cape Cod politicians and residents told a governor's ferry task force last night that they want relief from the Island-bound traffic they believe is clogging their roads.

And leaders in the town of Barnstable demanded a full voting seat for their community on the Steamship Authority board of governors.

"We have been the unintended victims of the growth and prosperity on the Islands," declared Barnstable town council president Roy Richardson.

"Barnstable needs a vote on the board. Times have changed, it wants a vote and it should not be contingent on New Bedford being a player," said Barnstable Rep. Demetrius Atsalis.

"We have been told that we are responsible for much of our own traffic problems,'" said Falmouth selectman and newly elected Bourne Rep. Matthew Patrick. "Well, that may be true, but the growth we have in Falmouth benefits Falmouth. And you can't say that because of that growth we should also put up with increasing traffic to Martha's Vineyard. It just doesn't equate," he added.

It was public hearing number three for the governor's task force, which is studying the problems surrounding ferry service to the two Islands. About 150 people turned out for the session, held at the Mashpee High School. The 11-member task force is chaired by the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge.

Last week the task force held a public hearing on Nantucket. The first hearing was held in New Bedford. The final hearing will be held on the Vineyard next week.

Last night the task force heard from the people of Cape Cod - most of them residents of Barnstable or Falmouth. Many said a new SSA port in New Bedford will give them relief by capturing traffic from points west.

At the outset Mr. Patrick commended the task force for its courage, and Judge Kass replied:

"Courage comes easily, Mr. Representative - figuring it out comes much harder."

It was an apt statement for the evening, which went on for three hours and revealed just how complicated the ferry issue has become for the Cape and Islands port communities.

At times the testimony took on angry tones. As the hour grew late, even the unflappable Judge Kass had a brief moment of exasperation.

"Well, what would you have us do, sink Nantucket?" Judge Kass said after one particularly long rant from a visibly angry Barnstable resident about what he claimed was excessive spending by the boat line on the Hyannis terminal.

But the hearing also saw moments of diplomacy, especially from longtime Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington and newly elected Sen. Paul O'Leary.

"I think some of these divisions have been exaggerated in the press and I believe there is more of a community of interest here," said Senator O'Leary. "I believe there is the potential for consensus. It's clear that Barnstable needs to have a vote, but the Islands need to preserve the majority," he added. Mr. O'Leary, who by his own admission has only been on the job for a few short weeks, also zeroed in on the subject of opening up more ferry service from New Bedford. "To suggest that the Steamship Authority should be seen as a tool for economic development is a mistake. That isn't its mission, it isn't what it was designed to do," he said.

"Rob O'Leary is quick study," began Mr. Turkington. In a rare moment of humor in an otherwise heavy night of serious testimony, Mr. Turkington praised Gov. Paul Cellucci for his recent decision to take the post of ambassador to Canada. "He will no longer have to deal with the Steamship Authority problem - the governor is a wise man," Mr. Turkington quipped.

"Every port, every shipping concern and every interest group has 50 years worth of Steamship Authority impacts and frustrations. This is the most complicated issue I have ever encountered in my 16 years and it is simply because there are so many stakeholders," Mr. Turkington said.

The Steamship Authority was repeatedly portrayed as monopolistic and insensitive to the needs of the mainland port communities. Barnstable leaders described their long and tempestuous relationship with the boat line. Falmouth residents described their town as one large parking lot for the boat line, which now parks more than 3,000 cars in Falmouth in the summer months.

More than once the boat line came under fire for its recent decision to buy the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi. After the decision it was revealed that the SSA expects to lose between $600,000 and $900,000 on the operation this summer.

"They bought the Schamonchi knowing they were going to have a $700,000 loss. If I had that kind of loss, I would lose my job," Mr. Atsalis said.

"The authority's mandate is not in question here, but its accountability is," said Philip Scudder, vice president of Hy-Line Cruises. Hy-Line operates six private passenger ferries to both Islands, and Mr. Scudder spoke forcefully about the need to protect the rights of the grandfathered private carriers. He described the private carriers as an integral component of the public boat line.

"Hy-Line has become the other lifeline to Nantucket," Mr. Scudder said.

"Do you have freight?" Judge Kass asked.

"No, passengers," Mr. Scudder replied.

"Then it's a very limited lifeline, isn't it," the judge returned.

Expanding the boat line board of governors was a prominent theme, but few could agree on how to do it. An extra member or weighted vote for the two Islands were among the suggestions.

The economic relationship between the two Islands and their respective mainland port communities was also a topic for discussion.

"The economic impact that the Island contributes to the town of Falmouth - I don't think that has been really recognized," said Dan Flynn, the Vineyard member of the task force.

With all due respect, I think it's minimal," replied Mr. Patrick, the Falmouth selectman.

Others had another view.

"We support the Steamship Authority as a viable economic engine, and it is one of the five largest employers in our town," said Falmouth selectman Pat Flynn.

John O'Brien, the executive director of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said the entire issue needs careful study.

"The Islanders come over here and they buy cars and trucks and food and clothing and health care services," Mr. O'Brien said. He continued:

"There is a really complex relationship between the Cape and the Islands that has grown up over time. And we don't make anything on Cape Cod, so really everything gets trucked to us. What gets shipped here by truck really requires more study, and we think there is at least a $100 million relationship between the Islands and the Cape. The great city of New Bedford has a legitimate economic development need, but this steamship line was never meant to be an economic development engine. If the government gets involved and makes this decision for us, it could be a big mistake. I think we can solve this problem ourselves."

The task force holds its final public hearing on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center.