New Bedford Summit Pushes Fast Ferry

By JOSHUA SABATINI

At a summit meeting held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Saturday, officials from Martha's Vineyard, New Bedford and Falmouth agreed to urge the Steamship Authority to consider a new proposal for fast ferry service from the city to the Island.

New Bedford mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. invited Island officials to the summit after the SSA board of governors killed the fast ferry proposal by a vote of 2-1 last week.

No representatives from Nantucket attended Saturday's forum. Three Vineyard selectmen attended: Alex Preston of Chilmark, Cynthia Mitchell of West Tisbury and Todd Rebello of Oak Bluffs. Also from the Island were county commissioners Robert Sawyer, Leslie Leland and Leonard Jason Jr. and Tisbury town administrator Dennis Luttrell.

At the beginning of the meeting, officials introduced themselves and voiced opinions on the fast ferry service. Halfway through the meeting, New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire revealed a new fast ferry service proposal that he had begun piecing together just a day after the SSA board's vote.

The new proposal changes the original three-year lease to two six-month periods, May through October, over two years. Negotiating with the manufacturer of the vessel, Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland, Wash., Mr. Leontire said he was able to create a deal allowing SSA to lease a 144-foot, 400-passenger high-speed ferry for a maximum cost of $1.95 million. The original proposal would have cost $3.6 million. However, the purchase option was increased by about a million dollars.

Mr. Sawyer, the only voice of opposition at the summit, quickly responded. "While you are taking a million and half off the lease, the purchase option is up a million dollars. If everyone believes this is going to be a successful venture, then you must factor in what it is going to cost for the boat."

"That is interesting," said Mr. Leontire. "But you cannot have it both ways. You can't argue, ‘We are not going to try it because it is too expensive up front,' and then say, ‘We are not going to do it because it is cheap up front, but we may have to pay for a boat at the end.' Well, the reality is that whatever the going market rate for a boat is at the end is what you have to pay. If it is too much, then you go out under an RFP and you find someone who will provide you a boat and you buy it. The critical question is trying this pilot program with a minimum exposure to the SSA. If it fails, then we have limited the SSA exposure. If it doesn't fail, then the SSA can go out under an RFP and get the cheapest boat possible."

Mr. Sawyer said there was a need to look at different alternatives. He suggested a ferry carrying vehicles and advised taking more time before accepting the new proposal.

Mr. Luttrell, who did vote to have the fast ferry service issue revisited, supported Mr. Sawyer's request for further study. "Before Tisbury can ask the governors to revisit the fast ferry, I think it would be wise to look into alternatives and present those alternatives at the same time the new proposal is presented. There are people on the Vineyard who would like to come to New Bedford and bring their cars. We should look at the alternatives," said Mr. Luttrell.

The two Falmouth representatives, selectmen Troy Clarkson and Pat Flynn, were in favor of both the original and the new proposal. Falmouth welcomes the service because the town is under strain due to traffic and parking, they said. In a six-month period this summer season, about 870,000 vehicles reportedly used SSA parking lots and ferry services.

Mr. Clarkson, praising the efforts of Mr. Leontire and Mayor Kalisz, turned to a football analogy. "With this proposal, what we are seeing is a touchdown pass on third and long. The new proposal takes a huge amount of financial risk out of the proposal."

Mr. Rebello sympathized with Falmouth's burgeoning traffic problem. He said, "The entire Island over the last five years clearly heard from Falmouth the concerns about traffic and the parking lots. The fast ferry proposal seemed to be an avenue the SSA was going to go down to redirect the traffic flow, and that redirection would have taken care of Falmouth's concerns."

Ms. Mitchell supported the new proposal and said she found the recent vote by the SSA governors disconcerting. "We are at an ironic moment in the long-standing debate. Who could have predicted it where the Vineyard representative for SSA supports and the large majority of Vineyard officials support the fast ferry service, but that it was ultimately turned down by the other two SSA representatives?"

Mr. Clarkson expressed his enthusiasm at the revived prospects for fast-ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. "We thought it was in our reach and, alas, at the last minute it sort of withered away," he said. "But we can catch it and grab it and bring it back into reality, and I think we need to." Mr. Clarkson said opponents of a pilot program should stop "opposing the program based on theories and abstract calculations. We need to see, once and for all, if this program is viable. I know the leaders of our town are unanimously united and believe the fast ferry is a good thing."

"The governors should reconsider their vote," said Mr. Leland. "The Vineyard was trying to own up to its commitment to Falmouth, and this was a way to do it."

"The issue is how we deal with the future. Many of the problems we are facing with growth can be solved by using the city of New Bedford. It is a key player, and I think we should build a relationship. We must figure a way to bring the fast ferry back," said Mr. Jason.

But Mr. Sawyer remained steadfast in opposing the initiative. "Our objectives are universal. How we go about it is where some of us separate. We did not feel the plan was well-founded," he said, speaking for the opponents. "We were worried about a substantial financial risk that would cost Vineyarders money. We would like to see more service from New Bedford to the Vineyard. But there are many other types of service that should be more deeply explored."

Mr. Leontire responded: "Standing still and not trying things is not the way to go. This proposal would dramatically reduce the potential exposure of the SSA and the host communities while at the same time allowing for the pilot program to take place. If the issue really is concern of financial exposure, then we have taken a dramatic step forward to reducing that exposure."

The meeting concluded with a show of hands on whether to ask the SSA to hold a special meeting to revisit the fast ferry service. All but Mr. Sawyer voted in favor of the action.