New Bedford Run Fails

No on License

By JULIA WELLS

Gazette Senior Writer

Steamship Authority governors voted without dissent last week to deny a license application from a private freight hauler to run year-round service between New Bedford and the two Islands.

"Our focus clearly needs to remain on providing for the Islands," said SSA general counsel Steven Sayers. Mr. Sayers was point man in the staff recommendation to deny the license application from Seabulk International Inc.

"Philosophically I am not opposed to licensing a private carrier operating between New Bedford and the Islands if there is a proven fair-market approach. But there is a theme here where Seabulk is challenging and disputing the ability of the Steamship Authority to license and maintain the lifeline to the Islands, if you will. This sort of attitudinal approach concerns me," said Falmouth SSA governor Edward DeWitt.

"I think there is a place for private carriers and I hope that New Bedford freight service will be permitted, but I think the Steamship Authority should run it," said Barnstable board member Robert O'Brien.

The comments came at the monthly board meeting of the SSA governors held in Falmouth last Friday morning.

The vote to deny the license application was preceded by a prepared outburst from New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire.

"This is completely unacceptable in a country that is constitutionally committed to the free movement of people and goods in interstate commerce . . . . The SSA refusal to make a commitment to operate freight service from New Bedford reminds me of the old saying, ‘always a bridesmaid and never a bride,' "Mr. Leontire said.

Mr. Leontire's dispute with the boat line will now return to U.S. District Court, where a federal judge will decide whether to dismiss the case for lack of standing, or allow it to go forward on the merits.

"This case will certainly be ripe after today," Mr. Leontire declared just before the vote.

Formerly Hvide Marine Inc., Seabulk is a new company formed when Hvide was reorganized last year. Hvide is in the second year of a contract with the SSA to run a pilot freight program between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

In the new license request, Seabulk asked for permission to operate year-round ferry service between New Bedford and both Islands. The request was principally for carrying freight, but it also included a provision for carrying cars and passengers from the two Islands back to New Bedford. The license application was accompanied by a number of conditional demands, including a condition that the SSA reduce its own freight traffic to 1997 levels, and force some 8,000 trucks to use the Seabulk service.

The company also refused to specify what boat it would use for the service and it asked the SSA to waive a long list of public protection measures in its own freight licensing policy.

The application grew directly out of a ruling in New Bedford's lawsuit against the boat line. The complaint charges that the boat line violates interstate commerce laws by regulating its competition.

Two months ago U.S. District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock gave attorneys for the city of New Bedford two weeks to come up with a private carrier who wants a license to run ferry service - or face possible dismissal of the lawsuit.

Last Friday was the deadline for the boat line to act on the application.

At the outset of the meeting Mr. Sayers gave a long presentation including a summary of a 50-page staff report he had prepared on the Seabulk license application. Among other things, the report included a detailed history of the events that led to the pilot freight program now running between New Bedford and the Vineyard. The purpose of the program is to test the market for freight service between New Bedford and the two Islands.

In his report Mr. Sayers said so far the market test has proven to be costly for the SSA with no clear results about long-term viability. But he also outlined the commitment by the boat line board to reduce freight traffic in both the ports of Woods Hole and Hyannis.

"We have already committed ourselves to move toward the development of an off-Cape alternative for freight. The pilot program did reduce freight last summer, although it wasn't enough to meet the system's goal and the cost was substantial. There is a significant commitment to the mainland port communities, but unlike the two Islands you don't depend on the Steamship Authority for all of your freight needs," Mr. Sayers said, directing this last remark at Woods Hole resident Susan Shephard, who has actively campaigned for New Bedford service. Mr. Sayers also said:

"The question is no longer whether the authority should proceed [with New Bedford service], the question is how the authority should proceed, and it appears that the best approach is to be moving forward with incremental change. We are moving trucks between New Bedford and the Vineyard - it may not be fast enough for some and it may be too fast for others," Mr. Sayers said.

He recommended that the SSA consider running New Bedford service itself, drawing small cheers from employees who attended the meeting. But Mr. Sayers also said it will be difficult to develop a policy for deciding who goes to New Bedford, especially since all the current data "shows that there is very little interest in going out of New Bedford."

Mr. Sayers said one possibility is to direct certain nonperishable commodities, but this later drew angry remarks from Mr. Leontire on the sore subject of shipping hazardous material through New Bedford.

"It's rearing its ugly head again, and I can tell you you are dead wrong. It's not going to happen," Mr. Leontire said.

He repeatedly called the boat line board "schizophrenic," and at one point he drew sharp looks from board members when he suggested they lighten up when it comes to concern about the financial bottom line.

"The MBTA loses money. Massport loses money. All of these government entities lose money in the providing of services," Mr. Leontire said.

He also said: "The 50-page management report can be summed up by a quote made by St. Augustine in the fifth century: ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not yet,' " he said.

Craig Johnson, the chief spokesman for Seabulk Marine, declined to comment, because he said he had not had time to read the report.

Yesterday Mr. Johnson said he thinks the denial does not mean the door is closed. "It seems like it's still negotiable. We're still trying to figure out the denial and what it means," he said.

Although he had said last month that Seabulk had no intention of joining New Bedford as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Mr. Johnson appeared to change that position. "I'm not sure. It's a possibility, I guess, but that is really up to the Seabulk Corporation," he said. Mr. Johnson said the person who controls the decisions for Seabulk is currently out of the country.

The meeting last week was marked by expressions of commitment toward developing New Bedford service, including one from Vineyard SSA governor and board chairman J.B. Riggs Parker.

"We have to solve this problem. There is no doubt that we have commitments; we have problems at the mainland ports, and we have problems at the Island ports. I do believe we need to make change, move forward and discuss operations out of other ports, namely New Bedford," Mr. Parker said.