New Bedford Distorts Fast Ferry Picture

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

The pitch came fast and hard at the last Steamship Authority meeting for new high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer. David J. Oliveira, the freshman member of the boat line board from New Bedford, said a new ferry was under construction and would be ready to go by spring. He urged the SSA to move quickly on the license request from Boston Harbor Cruises.

But the managing partner of Boston Harbor Cruises admitted yesterday that the high-speed ferry now under construction at Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding in Somerset will in fact not be ready until late next summer.

And besides, Rick Nolan said, the ferry is under contract to somebody else.

"We expected to have a boat available for next summer; it was slated for July, but because of the busy nature of the shipyard it's going to be later than that now," Mr. Nolan said from his office in Boston yesterday. "And we have an offer on the boat from somebody in New York, so we're close to finalizing that deal."

At the boat line meeting on the Vineyard last month, Mr. Oliveira unveiled a surprise plan for fast ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard next summer, presenting the board with a formal license request from Boston Harbor Cruises to operate high-speed ferry service.

The proposal included a description of a high-speed catamaran ferry under construction. The ferry was described as the sister ship to the Athena, a 30-meter catamaran built by Gladding-Hearn that now operates between Galilee, R.I., and Block Island. Boston Harbor Cruises is a partner in that venture.

"In saying no to this proposal, you are saying no to the good of the Steamship Authority," declared former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire, who sat alongside Mr. Oliveira at the meeting. "If we delay, this proposal may not be on the table. There is a risk of losing the vessel," Mr. Oliveira emphasized at the September SSA governors' meeting.

But SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin said yesterday that after the September meeting, the boat line never heard from Boston Harbor Cruises.

"It's very sketchy and a bit curious - I would have expected them to contact us directly. All politics aside, other than working through George [Leontire] and David [Oliveira], it's just very unusual," Mr. Raskin said. "I would have expected them to knock on a door and educate us about their proposal and they haven't done that."

Mr. Nolan said he expected to hear from the boat line.

"I was expecting quite honestly to hear from management. I haven't heard from anybody - I was expecting they were going to be reaching out," he said yesterday.

The 21-page proposal submitted last month outlined a 10-year license request with an option for the Steamship Authority to buy the high-speed ferry after five years. (The SSA is empowered by its enabling statute to license private ferry operators for a fee, in order to protect its own mission as the lifeline to the two Islands.) The proposal included a draft operating schedule, a detailed description of the ferry under construction and many pages of promotional material about Boston Harbor Cruises.

But it failed to include the fact that the ferry will not be available in time for the summer season.

"It's unlikely we would have a boat available for the coming summer. But our desire to see high-speed service and our desire to be part of that is still strong," Mr. Nolan said.

The president of Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding said yesterday that he had no knowledge of a ferry that was under construction and planned for service to the Vineyard.

"I don't have any idea what you are talking about," said Gladding-Hearn president George Duclos.

Mr. Duclos said the Somerset shipyard has six fast ferries under construction, but he could not comment on any contracts for the ferries.

But INCAT, the Australian company that designs the high-speed ferries for Gladding-Hearn, provides detailed information on its web site about ferries under construction.

Only two ferries under construction at Gladding-Hearn are linked by contract to Boston Harbor Cruises, and both are described as 39-meter ferries. One is planned for completion by 2003, and the other is planned for completion in 2004.

Mr. Raskin said yesterday that senior managers at the boat line are in the process of stepping back and taking a detailed look at all the alternatives for ferry service out of New Bedford.

"It is my suggestion that we not limit ourselves to Boston Harbor Cruises, but put it out for an RFP [request for proposals]. If we are thinking that the fast ferry does look attractive, the best way to figure that out is to go to the marketplace," Mr. Raskin said.

"We are going to cost out a lot of different services. The fast ferry is one, but there are other things we are looking at as well. We could add a second boat to the Schamonchi run and we are going to look at freight service," the CEO said.

"There are a lot of different machinations, and we've got to cost them out and look at what's best. And you have to decide what are you really after - are you after freight or passengers? The only way the board can answer that is to look at the cost of each," he added.

Mr. Raskin also put his finger on the central conundrum surrounding expanded ferry service out of New Bedford: Residents of the Cape and Islands have said clearly that they do not want to increase traffic in the summer months, but in order to pay for the added cost of New Bedford service, the volume must be expanded.

"Spending money to take on more capacity only makes sense if you want more volume. When you say we're moving from a six or seven-mile trip to a 22-mile trip, and then say we're not going to make up for it with greater volume, then there is a cost associated with that," Mr. Raskin said.

"I keep saying it's like the buttons on the old car radio; you push one and another one pops up. When you are moving from a shorter to a longer distance haul without increasing volume, costs will increase. No one will dispute that."