Fast Ferry: Few Facts, Much Propaganda

By JULIA WELLS

From the very start it had all the markings of a political campaign - go heavy on the sales pitch, work the numbers to make them fit the pitch and filibuster to silence anyone who questioned the information.

Caveat emptor? The phrase was never in the same room with the high-speed ferry project between New Bedford and the Vineyard, because healthy skepticism and careful, arm's-length analysis have never been central to the cause. From the beginning, the project to replace the ferry Schamonchi with a trial high-speed passenger ferry has been a sell job.

Make that a hard-sell job.

Nowhere was this more evident than late last week inside senior management offices at the Steamship Authority in Woods Hole. After months of political rhetoric about the fast ferry project, the time for truth had finally arrived; acting general manager Wayne Lamson went to work on his own analysis and recommendation for the project. Mr. Lamson, the longtime treasurer at the boat line, is known for his meticulous work when it comes to the numbers. His recommendation on the fast ferry project was expected to carry great weight.

And the full-court press was on.

As he worked on his report, it is known that Mr. Lamson came under enormous pressure from Vineyard Steamship Authority governor J.B. Riggs Parker. Mr. Parker, who is closely aligned with New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire, has pushed relentlessly for the high-speed ferry project, and for days he reportedly pressured Mr. Lamson to develop a report that was not damaging to the cause.

In the end Mr. Lamson did an unusual thing: He made no recommendation on the project, instead laying out a long list of questions, problems and projected operating losses.

The report could well have been written in red ink.

Here are some of the facts:

The high-speed project is expected to cost millions of dollars over the next three years; the first year alone is expected to cost some $3.1 million.

Costs are certain, but revenues are not, Mr. Lamson concluded.

Under a best-case scenario that includes pumped-up passenger traffic never before seen on the Schamonchi (60,000 more passengers than the most ever carried), revenues still would not cover the cost of service, and the operating loss on the high-speed ferry would come to $900,000, Mr. Lamson found. This loss includes a stand-alone loss of about $150,000 and a loss of some $750,000 from lost parking and passenger revenue on the Woods Hole run. If ridership on the fast ferry does not meet expectations, operating losses could reach $1.7 million.

"In the final analysis it comes down to how many passengers could you reasonably expect to carry on a new high-speed passenger service from New Bedford. How many passengers would be willing to pay up to two times more for the added value, time and convenience?" Mr. Lamson wrote.

In recent weeks Mr. Parker and Mr. Leontire have pointed to the success of the Nantucket fast ferry for the sake of comparison, but in his report Mr. Lamson disputed the Nantucket parallel.

"This demonstration project . . . would be operating from an off-Cape port whose passenger-only service in the past has accounted for less than four per cent of the total number of passengers carried to the Vineyard on ferries each year," he wrote.

Mr. Lamson outlined other problems. The boat line has a lease agreement with the owner of the Billy Woods Wharf in New Bedford where the Schamonchi now docks; the lease agreement runs through the year 2003 and the boat line will have to pay the owner some sort of settlement to break the lease, because the pilot high-speed project is planned to run out of the State Pier.

The boat under consideration for charter is not a bow-loading ferry and would have to undergo modifications to use SSA docking facilities; the cost of the modifications is not spelled out in the report.

Under the current proposal, the SSA would pay $1.2 million a year - or $100,000 a month - to lease the high-speed ferry for a minimum of three years (the ferry would only be used in the spring and summer and would be tied up for seven months of the year). At the end of three years, the boat line would have the option to buy the boat for $7 million. Mr. Lamson found that any capital spending for a high-speed ferry in three years would collide with the current capital plan to build a replacement for the ferry Islander. He said the prospect for state and federal funding is dim, and he said that the boat line would likely need to ask the state legislature to increase its bonding limit.

The numbers for the Schamonchi are also dismal. If it operates, the ferry is projected to lose $860,000 next year and needs $400,000 worth of work, according to Mr. Lamson's report.

If the pilot project had been approved, it would cost $500,000 to tie up to the Schamonchi for the next year, Mr. Lamson said.

Mr. Lamson finally concluded that the only compelling reason to run the project was political will. "If the Vineyard through its elected officials overwhelmingly wants the Authority to proceed with a three-year demonstration project starting with the 2002 season, and they are willing to cover the net cost of the service, they should be given the opportunity to see if the new service will have its desired effect," he wrote.

Mr. Lamson's report was circulated to the boat line governors and also to Mr. Leontire on Monday this week, but beyond that, the report - which was potentially damaging to the cause - was kept quiet.

And Mr. Leontire took over.

On Tuesday, he issued a six-page position paper about the ferry project, taking only the numbers from Mr. Lamson's report that were most favorable and reshaping them into a promotional pitch for the project. The position paper was released to area newspapers.

After repeated inquiries from the press, Mr. Lamson's staff summary was made public late in the day on Tuesday.

In his report, Mr. Lamson noted that New Bedford had offered to pay for 50 per cent of the operating loss on the pilot project - but in fact it later turned out that the city was really only offering to pay half of the $150,000 portion of the loss. Translation: a $75,000 annual contribution from the city toward an operating loss that could spiral to $1.7 million in the first year alone.

The Lamson report was not circulated to the Vineyard selectmen until just before their meeting on Wednesday, and with Mr. Leontire taking up all the oxygen, it was too late for public officials in Falmouth or on the Vineyard to learn much about the report. Mr. Leontire met with the selectmen in Falmouth on Tuesday night and the Vineyard selectmen on Wednesday night, converting his position paper to a power-point program to show a Disney-like plan for creating a seamless transportation link from Boston to the Vineyard through New Bedford.

The political campaign worked. Falmouth selectmen voted to endorse the fast ferry project, and the next night the Vineyard selectmen followed suit. The huge projected operating losses were played down. Mr. Parker said Mr. Lamson's numbers showed that the fast ferry project would break even, and he touted the project as a promising revenue source for the Vineyard run.

"This is an experiment that we have to make," he said.