SSA Bill Issued by Committee

Joint Committee on Transportation Releases Revised Version of Bill with Changes to Makeup of Boatline Board

By JULIA WELLS

A legislative bill to reorganize the Steamship Authority board of governors emerged from the Joint Committee on Transportation this week, markedly changed and reshaped to put more distance between New Bedford and the public boat line that is the lifeline to the two Islands.

The bill would give a full voting seat to the town of Barnstable and a provisional, nonvoting seat to New Bedford for two years.

The new bill bears scant resemblance to the legislation proposed by the Kass commission last year and ignores altogether an amendment proposed late last year by a group of Island selectmen to change the way the Vineyard boat line governor is appointed.

"The Kass bill went in and this is what came out. This is a much better bill than the Kass bill, in my opinion, for the Islands," said Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary.

The Kass bill was the result of a state task force appointed by former Gov. Paul Cellucci to study boat line issues. The task force was headed by the Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge. The central recommendation of the Kass bill was a voting seat for New Bedford.

The backbone for the redrafted bill was a compromise measure proposed by Mr. O'Leary.

"Anyone who thinks that the legislature would jam something unpleasant down the Island's throat because of big city powers at the state house will be relieved to see what this bill actually does. It sets a reasonable tone, and it addresses real problems," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington.

"This legislation strikes an appropriate balance and is sound policy, allowing New Bedford to have enhanced communication with the authority and to ‘be in the room' for all discussions on its operations while maintaining the integrity of the original mission of the authority, which is to service the Islands," said Rep. Joseph C. Sullivan in a prepared statement. Mr. Sullivan is a Braintree Democrat who cochairs the transportation committee along with Sen. Robert Havern, an Arlington Democrat.

Mr. Turkington, Mr. O'Leary, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Havern were instrumental in crafting the new bill.

The bill has been in committee for months; the amended version came out with a favorable recommendation from the committee on Wednesday afternoon.

The bill still has miles to go before it becomes law, and more amendments are expected. The bill will now go to the Ways and Means Committee for review. New Bedford city officials and legislators expressed predictable outrage, vowing to push for changes on the bill when it comes to the House floor for a vote.

But that is not expected to happen soon, as the Ways and Means Committee is now embroiled in the $2 billion state budget crisis.

"This is clearly not on a fast track," Mr. Turkington said. "It isn't going to happen soon, and it isn't going to end up the way it is now. But this is the best crack at addressing the issue."

Under the proposed legislation, the two Islands would keep a voting majority on the board through weighted votes. The bill calls for the Vineyard and Nantucket each to have a 35 per cent vote, while Barnstable and Falmouth would each have a 15 per cent vote. The bill would also change the way the port towns pay for any boat line deficit - under the proposed legislation the Vineyard would pay 45 per cent of any deficit, while Nantucket would pay 35 per cent and Barnstable and Falmouth would pay 10 per cent each.

At the end of two years, the boat line board of governors would vote on whether to give New Bedford a voting seat.

The bill would also:

* Abolish the financial advisory board and establish a new seven-member port council with one member each from Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, New Bedford, Barnstable, Nantucket, Falmouth and Fairhaven.

* Increase the boat line bonding limit from $50 million to $75 million.

* Require New Bedford to make the State Pier available for SSA use.

* Require New Bedford to secure a permanent place for Ralph Packer's barge operation.

* Direct the state auditor to examine the feasibility of boat line contracts with private carriers under the Pacheco Act. (This provision of the bill triggers the review by Ways and Means.)

Mr. Turkington credited Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Havern for their attention to detail. "Clearly it is a compromise - both chairmen put an extraordinary amount of work into this, and this is a tiny issue in the overall spectrum for the transportation committee," he said. "We've got a $14 billion Big Dig problem, a Massport head problem and a turnpike problem. The arrangement of who sits at the table in a small boat line that serves the Islands is a tiny issue in the overall spectrum for this committee, but both chairmen gave it a lot of time and attention because they recognized how important it is - especially to the Islands. So I guess you might say they were reluctant to rock the boat," he added. Mr. Turkington is a member of the transportation committee.

Mr. Turkington said the amendment proposed by the Vineyard selectmen late last year was not taken up. "There was no discussion about changing the way the Vineyard member is appointed," he said.

The amendment had been aimed at overturning a 4-3 vote by the Dukes County Commission to replace Vineyard Steamship Authority governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn Roessel.

Mr. O'Leary had similar praise for the cochairmen of the committee. "Bob Havern and Joe Sullivan, they were very open, very involved and very receptive. Bob Havern really extended himself - he was really a strong advocate for the Islands and he was just plugging away. They listened carefully and they heard the concerns and they tried to strike a balance," he said. He continued:

"It is a compromise. It tries to strike a rational position in a way that gets the issue off Beacon Hill and back on the Cape and Islands where it belongs. And it ought to solve this problem of whenever there is a problem, somebody running up to Boston to change the board. Even though it's not perfect, it's a reasonable place to go. It keeps the Islands in control. It obligates New Bedford to demonstrate that service out of that port is financially credible. It gives them a venue to formally interact with the board. It's a step."

The news about the redrafted bill drew mixed reaction on the Vineyard. Some of the public officials who had pushed for the radical amendment said they were disappointed while others expressed cautious optimism.

"In their wisdom they ignored the Kass commission and other amendments that were sent up to the legislature, and that's a good thing," said West Tisbury selectman and county commissioner John Alley.

Tisbury selectman Ray LaPorte said he was disappointed that there were no hearings on the Vineyard.

But Mr. Turkington had a word of caution. "People shouldn't blow this up. A bill coming out of committee is not a big event, especially a bill that is going to another committee," he said.

Concluded Mr. Sullivan: "The next two years will allow for a full and meaningful evaluation of New Bedford's participation."