Freight Service Outlook Dims

Steamship Authority Awaits Word from New Bedford on Summer Freight Service to Island; New Deadline Is Set

By JULIA WELLS

The dubious outlook for summer freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard got even more dubious last week when Steamship Authority treasurer and acting general manager Wayne Lamson told the SSA board of governors that the Whaling City has refused to respond to inquiries from the boat line.

"I am not optimistic," Mr. Lamson said at the February boat line meeting, held in Hyannis last Friday. "We need to prepare for the real possibility that there will not be freight service from New Bedford this summer," he added.

Mr. Lamson recommended that the start of the freight service be delayed until May 17 to allow another three weeks for New Bedford to respond. If there is no answer by March 8, Mr. Lamson said, he will have no choice but to recommend to the board at their March meeting that they abandon the freight program altogether for this year.

The freight service was set to start on May 1.

The Steamship Authority has been running freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard for the last two years, using a contracted private hauler. The freight program was first launched as a pilot program, aimed at providing traffic relief to the residents of Falmouth by taking some trucks off the Woods Hole Road.

The program has cost the boat line more than $1.2 million a year and has made a modest inroad into relieving traffic, taking about 3,000 trucks off the Falmouth roads over 172 days of operation last year. Last year the SSA carried 73,271 trucks on the Vineyard run, including the trucks carried from New Bedford.

This year the Steamship Authority governors made an even stronger commitment to the New Bedford freight program, voting to have the boat line run the program using the freight vessel Katama.

The program was scheduled to run from May through October.

But New Bedford threw a monkey wrench into the program in December, following a vote by the Dukes County Commission to replace Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn Roessel. Mr. Parker had been a close ally of New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire.

After Mr. Parker was not reappointed, New Bedford city officials balked, pulling the plug on a nearly-completed agreement to run a trial high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer, and also announcing that they would not allow freight service to run from the state pier.

Mr. Leontire claimed that the boat line board was no longer friendly toward New Bedford, even though the board had voted unanimously to approve the trial high-speed ferry project and also the freight project.

The end of the high-speed ferry project means the boat line will run the conventional passenger ferry Schamonchi between New Bedford and the Vineyard again this summer.

The SSA bought the Schamonchi last year in a move led by Mr. Parker, who had planned to replace the ferry with a high-speed passenger ferry. The Schamonchi runs out of Billy Woods Wharf in New Bedford; the boat line has a contract with the owner of the pier.

Last week Mr. Lamson said John Montgomery, a partner at Ropes and Gray who is the boat line's Boston attorney, wrote two letters to New Bedford inquiring about the freight service, but has received no response.

The issue has been convoluted; after New Bedford announced that it would not allow freight service into the city, Mr. Lamson sent a letter to Mr. Leontire asking for clarity on the issue. Later in the month the SSA asked state environmental officials for guidance in the matter. The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) actually owns the state pier, and the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission has a contract with DEM to manage the pier. State officials replied that the harbor development commission had taken no official action on the matter. The SSA then asked to be on the agenda for a meeting of the commission.

The harbor development commission referred the matter to its counsel, who is Mr. Leontire.

Amid a series of abrasive remarks at the January boat line meeting, Mr. Leontire said he would be issuing an opinion shortly on the question of the boat line's use of the pier.

No opinion has been issued yet.

In January Mr. Montgomery wrote two letters to Mr. Leontire. "I understand the New Bedford Harbor Development Commission has referred to you the authority's request for access to [the state pier]. . . . Please advise me no later than Jan. 22, whether you will proceed … to resolve the issue," Mr. Montgomery wrote on Jan. 17.

On Jan. 30, Mr. Montgomery wrote another letter, this time setting the record straight in light of comments Mr. Leontire had made in a newspaper about the boat line refusing to commit to "viable passenger ferry service for New Bedford."

"As you know," Mr. Montgomery wrote, "this statement is not correct. The authority has not refused to make such a commitment." He continued: "To the contrary, its members voted unanimously on Nov. 15, 2001, to undertake a pilot high-speed passenger-only ferry project on certain terms and conditions which were, at least at that time, entirely acceptable to the city. It was the city that pulled out of the arrangement on Dec. 6, declined to respond to Mr. Lamson's written request on Dec. 7 that the city reverse course, and then declared on Dec. 18 that there would be no high-speed passenger or freight service from New Bedford unless the legislature enacted certain changes to the authority's enabling legislation by Jan. 15."

At their meeting last week the boat line governors voted unanimously to set a deadline of March 8 for New Bedford to respond.

"My patience is wearing thin," said Falmouth SSA governor and board chairman Galen Robbins. "We have done everything possible to try and make this work, and New Bedford has put us in this situation."

Mr. Lamson said if the freight program does not run it will not require any increase in service out of Woods Hole, in part because the service has not attracted many advance reservations for this year. So far there are only about 900 reservations, most of them for the early morning trips, Mr. Lamson said. This translates to about eight to 10 trucks a day.

Advance reservations for freight are down overall this year at the boat line.

Also last week, Mr. Lamson released a year-end financial analysis of the New Bedford freight program for 2001.

The SSA contracted with Seabulk International (formerly Hvide Marine Inc.) to operate the service from April through November.

The service carried a total of 3,030 trucks, or an average of 17 trucks a day. (The program was expanded to permit small trucks, including pickups, to use the service.)

The total cost of the service was $1.59 million. Total revenues from the service were $352,470, or an average of $116 per truck. The average cost per truck to the boat line was $526.

The net loss from the program was $1.24 million, down slightly from the first year of the program, when the SSA lost $1.29 million.

Revenues from the service covered only 22 per cent of the operating costs, Mr. Lamson found. The analysis also shows that the Seabulk Minnesota ran at about 47 per cent capacity over an eight-month period. Even if the service had run at 100 per cent capacity, the boat line would have lost $844,000, according to Mr. Lamson's analysis.

The cost of New Bedford ferry service was the central contributing factor in two fare increases on the Vineyard run last year, including a sharp increase in the popular excursion fares for Island residents. Mr. Lamson said if the New Bedford freight service does not run this year, the boat line will save money, possibly as much as $500,000. He said it is unlikely that the savings would translate to a fare reduction on the Vineyard run, but he said it certainly could mean that fares will hold steady in the coming year.

"As for reducing rates, I think it's unlikely for this year, but it could be used to keep rates from going up," he said.

Mr. Lamson said the extra money could be put toward the Oak Bluffs terminal reconstruction project, a capital spending project that is considered a priority.