Trying to Follow the Steamship Authority Is Harder Than Chasing the Poor Red Sox

By JULIA WELLS

It's hard to follow the players without a scorecard, as the old saying goes, and when it comes to Steamship Authority affairs it's getting tough to decipher the box scores these days.

There is now a swirl of public confusion around the boat line, and this week the list of public meetings on SSA business suddenly grew long and tangled.

At least a dozen separate SSA meetings are scheduled between now and the end of the month. The list includes public hearings on the complicated new service model now under discussion, public hearings on the new license request for ferry service between New Bedford and the Islands, meetings with truckers to discuss the new service model - and at the end of it all, a giant monthly meeting of the boat line board of governors with an agenda that promises to have all the brevity of a Victor Hugo novel.

"Confusion? I guess it is getting pretty confusing," said Vineyard SSA governor J.B. Riggs Parker this week.

"People over here are so confused they don't know what to think, and quite frankly I am just as confused as everybody else," declared Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman.

Last week the SSA received a license application from a private freight hauler who now wants permission to run year-round ferry service between New Bedford and the two Islands. The application by Seabulk International Inc., formerly known as Hvide Marine Inc., will be the subject of five separate public hearings in the next three weeks.

The Seabulk license request comes as an accompaniment to the city of New Bedford's lawsuit against the boat line in federal court. The complaint charges that the 41-year-old state-chartered boat line violates restraint of trade laws because it has the power to license its competition.

A federal judge last month gave the city two weeks to come up with a private carrier who wants a license to run some kind of ferry service - or face dismissal of the lawsuit.

Now the SSA is facing a court-ordered deadline to act on the Seabulk license application by the end of this month.

Under its licensing policy, the boat line usually holds public hearings in each affected community.

Public hearings are now set to be held in New Bedford, Falmouth, Barnstable and Nantucket as well as on the Vineyard.

Falmouth and Barnstable are not affected communities in any strict sense of the term, but Mr. Parker said this week that the hearings were requested by the boat line board members from each community.

"They asked for the hearings, so we said we would do it," Mr. Parker said, referring to Barnstable board member Robert O'Brien and Falmouth board member Edward DeWitt.

The Vineyard public hearing on the Seabulk license request was originally set for Tuesday this week, but the meeting date was changed after Mr. Parker learned that the second Tuesday in April is the day for annual town meetings in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and West Tisbury. A special town meeting is planned in Tisbury for the same night.

The public hearing will now be held on April 19 at 7 p.m. in the cafeteria of the Oak Bluffs School.

"It was a mistake; we didn't know about the town meetings," said Mr. Parker.

Meanwhile, a series of meetings are also ongoing on the ambitious new service model now under discussion in the port communities.

Also due to be released this month is a report from the governor's ferry task force, appointed early this year to study Steamship Authority issues. The task force held public hearings in the port communities throughout the month of February. The report is expected to recommend some kind of change for the boat line, including possibly a change in the makeup of the governing board, but the details are not known. Daniel Flynn, the Vineyard member of the task force, told the Dukes County Selectmen's Association this week that the report will not be harmful to the Islands.

The task force is chaired by the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge. All the other members of the task force are political appointments from Gov. Paul Cellucci's office.

The task force report is due by April 15.

The schedule of coming SSA meetings is as follows:

* April 9, public hearing on the Seabulk license application, 5 p.m. in the New Bedford Free Public Library.

* April 12, public hearing on the Seabulk license application, 7 p.m. in the Nantucket High School.

* April 17, public hearing on the Seabulk license application, 5 p.m. in the SSA Hyannis terminal.

* April 18, public hearing on the Seabulk license application, 7 p.m. in the Gus Canty Recreation Center in Falmouth.

* April 19, public hearing on the Seabulk license application, 7 p.m. in the Oak Bluff School cafeteria.

* April 24, public hearing on the service model, 7 p.m. in the Nantucket high school.

Also, a series of meetings has been set up with local truckers to talk about the service model. One meeting was held on the Vineyard yesterday afternoon. Another is set to be held on Nantucket next week, and another is planned for Woods Hole on April 18.

The monthlong series of meetings concludes with a boat line board meeting on April 27. The regular meeting was set for April 19, but the date was changed to allow time for SSA managers to develop recommendations on the Seabulk license request. In addition to a decision on the highly charged New Bedford ferry issue, the SSA meeting is expected to include a heavy business agenda. Among other things the board will take up a request from the owners of Hy-Line Cruises to replace their high-speed passenger ferry, the Grey Lady II, with a new, larger fast ferry, the Grey Lady III.

The Grey Lady operates year-round between Hyannis and Nantucket.

More discussion on the service model is also planned for the April meeting.