SSA Debate Spits Islands

Stormy Waters

By JULIA WELLS

Gazette Senior Writer

Calling a virtual mandate from some 800 people on Nantucket uninformed, Vineyard Steamship Authority governor and board chairman J.B. Riggs Parker said last week that he will press ahead with the ambitious new service model for the public boat line.

"I believe I am not informed enough to make a statement on these issues, and if I am not informed, it would be unusual to conclude that communities as a whole are informed," declared Mr. Parker.

The remark came during the monthly SSA board meeting held in Falmouth last Friday morning. Three days earlier hundreds of Nantucket residents had jammed a public meeting on their island and called for an end to the service model.

The service model is aimed at developing a 10-year strategic plan for the boat line.

The chief objections to the service model on Nantucket center around a futuristic vision that calls for replacing all three ferries on the Nantucket run with a single, three-tiered high-speed ferry that carries cars, passengers and freight.

Many of the assumptions for the futuristic ferry have already been challenged, including the cost (estimated at $30 million, but the number is still soft) and travel time (one ferry would need to make six round-trips a day to replace the current ferries on the Nantucket run, but six trips are impossible using the speed calculations for the futuristic ferry). There is also the question of reliability - with only one ferry, what happens if the boat breaks down?

In a show of both hands and voices last week, the 800 people on Nantucket asked the boat line to go back to the drawing board for its strategic plan. The Nantucket selectmen and county commissioners also wrote a letter to Armand Tiberio, SSA general manager, objecting to the service model.

But at the SSA board meeting on Friday morning, both Mr. Parker and Falmouth governor Edward DeWitt openly snubbed Nantucket governor Grace Grossman by refusing to second her motion to end the service model for Nantucket.

"We had a meeting with 800 people and there were some very well-spoken and articulate reasons why we should not have this program. The Nantucket people have spoken, and I have been asked by the selectmen to make a motion to discontinue these studies and all the expenses for the service model to Nantucket," Mrs. Grossman began.

She added: "The people do not want a three-tiered fast ferry."

There was no second for Mrs. Grossman's motion. Ordinarily when a second receives no motion it is not a subject for discussion. But Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Parker both then launched into discussion about their reasons for continuing the service model.

"This service model is about more than just a fast ferry," said Mr. DeWitt.

"The Steamship Authority has to look into the future; it has to inform itself; it has to look at the technology," Mr. Parker said. "I believe we must go forward with the service model, taking all this into account. I do not believe we should abandon the effort," he added.

Mr. Parker said he was "impressed with the unanimity" at the Nantucket meeting, but he also said he believed the people on Nantucket had not had ample time to consider the service model. "They got it for the first time that night," Mr. Parker said. Mrs. Grossman said in fact the model had been circulated by the Island chamber of commerce weeks before the meeting.

It is also true that Mr. Parker and Mr. Tiberio had traveled to Nantucket three months ago to give the service model to the editorial board of The Inquirer & Mirror, the newspaper of record on that Island. The "Inky Mirror," as it is nicknamed on Nantucket, has published numerous stories and editorials about the service model in recent weeks.

Mrs. Grossman questioned whether it was a waste of time to spend any more money on the service model if the people of Nantucket don't want it, but Mr. Tiberio said all of the work on the service model has been in-house so far. "We haven't spent any money on it; it's all been done internally," Mr. Tiberio said.

Mr. Tiberio said he plans to host a fast ferry symposium in the middle of May that will feature shipbuilders and engineering firms.

"You heard it loud and clear that Nantucket doesn't want to be the guinea pig," Mrs. Grossman said.

"I respect that view, but I think we are still saying that there is a void of information, and we would like to hold on until there is final, final information," Mr. Tiberio said.

"Every issue that was raised last Tuesday needs to be addressed," he added.

"What I heard [on Nantucket] was a loud and clear message that if we can't defend it, they don't want it," said Mr. DeWitt.

Steve Tornovish, the financial advisory board member from Nantucket, played a somewhat neutral role, acknowledging the mandate from his island, but interpreting it differently.

"What I heard loud and clear is don't waste a lot of time and money on this," Mr. Tornovish said.

The service model has been at the center of a growing divide on the SSA between the Nantucket representative and her counterparts on the Vineyard and in Falmouth. Mrs. Grossman has adopted a conservative approach to spending and expansion, while Mr. Parker and Mr. DeWitt are openly enamored at the prospect of developing new technology for the boat line. On Friday, Mr. DeWitt cited the Jones Act as the reason the United States has lagged in the development of fast ferries, and he expressed optimism that the SSA might land grant money for building a new high-tech ferry.

"I have been to a couple of the ferry conferences where I talked to marine agents and they were begging us for a grant application - I think we would be a valid candidate for such a grant," Mr. DeWitt said.

In the end, Mr. Parker said he will not stop the service model, but he also said he will stand by earlier statements he has made that he will not vote to force the service model on either Island if it is not wanted.

"I will not vote for a service model that the Islands don't want if they have fully looked at the situation," Mr. Parker said.