SSA Proposal Shows New Bedford Plan

Boat Line Favors Whaling City Service Based on Long Season and Fast Ferries Capable of Carrying Huge Volume

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

Against a backdrop of internal maneuvers and with no concrete policy directive from the board of governors, senior managers at the Steamship Authority are now moving ahead to develop New Bedford as an expanded port.

A request for proposals (RFP) went out last week that could lead to high-speed passenger ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard as early as next summer.

Developed by boat line chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin and general counsel Steven Sayers, the RFP sketches an unambiguous "bigger is better" picture, with an eye toward possibly contracting with a private operator to run more trips and bring more passengers to the Vineyard through an extended summer season.

The RFP is unusual in that it marks the first time in recent memory that the boat line has sent out an RFP with no prior discussion or vote by the board.

"While we are hopeful that one submission will prove irresistible, the RFP is also an attempt to get market information," Mr. Raskin wrote in a memorandum to the board that accompanied the RFP last week. The RFP does not specify high-speed ferry service, but the requirements appear to be geared toward high-speed service.

In short form, the boat line is looking for bids from experienced ferry operators to run passenger service between New Bedford and the Vineyard, beginning either in 2003 or 2004. The terms sketched in the RFP include a long-term license of eight years or more, with service running between either Billy Woods Wharf or the State Pier in New Bedford, and the port of Oak Bluffs. Use of the SSA pier in Oak Bluffs is possible.

The RFP lists a series of evaluation criteria in three rating categories: not advantageous, advantageous and highly advantageous.

Highly advantageous criteria include the ability of an operator to carry more than 2,400 passengers a day in each direction and to run a schedule of more than six trips a day. A startup date for next summer is considered highly advantageous while a beginning date for the following summer is considered not advantageous. The RFP also envisions an expanded season from April 1 through Oct. 31.

The terms in the RFP appear to be in conflict with the go-slow philosophy regarding New Bedford service outlined by Mr. Raskin and the board in recent months.

"I caution against us rushing into anything. There are boats everywhere," Mr. Raskin said two months ago when newly appointed New Bedford governor David Oliveira pressed the board to take quick action on a high-speed ferry proposal from Boston Harbor Cruises.

Also last month, the two Island governors blocked a proposal to restart seasonal freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

"As we develop New Bedford service, I feel it is more important to do it right than to do it right now," said Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel.

"I think it's important to plan and plan it well," said Nantucket governor Grace Grossman.

The RFP commits the boat line to a decision by mid-January, although Mr. Raskin makes it clear in his memorandum that the final decision rests with the board.

"Only the board can approve and authorize any new service, whether provided by the Authority or some third party," Mr. Raskin wrote. He also noted that the RFP will be evaluated alongside an in-house analysis of freight service with no RFP.

Any new passenger service would replace the passenger ferry Schamonchi. The boat line bought the Schamonchi from Janet Thompson in a surprise move two years ago. The ferry lost more than $500,000 in its first year of operation and more than $800,000 last year.

The Schamonchi currently runs three trips a day and a fourth trip on Fridays from May through September. The ferry operates between Billy Woods Wharf and the SSA terminal in Oak Bluffs, with a total daily capacity of about 1,900 passengers.

The Schamonchi operates at well below capacity for most of the season.

There has been almost no public discussion on the Vineyard about the impact of expanded high-speed passenger service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. Former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire and boat line governor David Oliveira traveled to the Vineyard last month for private discussions with Ms. Roessel about the New Bedford agenda.

Mr. Leontire, who is now a member of the boat line advisory port council, showed Ms. Roessel the ambitious plan for redeveloping downtown New Bedford he had unveiled in a traveling road show three years ago. Among other things, the plan envisions a new $95 million oceanarium and waterfront hotel complex. Mr. Leontire also repeated his assertion that city planners want to continue to develop a working waterfront.

A Gazette reporter who attended the meeting was asked to leave by Mr. Leontire and Mr. Oliveira.

The decision last week to put out an RFP without first consulting the board comes during a period of strained relations between Mr. Raskin and the board of governors. Mr. Raskin was hired as the first boat line CEO last April.

Last month the board approved an amendment to Mr. Raskin's contract that amounts to a six-month truce in the growing feud. The amendment endorses the CEO model and outlines a six-month "readjustment period" between Mr. Raskin and the board. Mr. Raskin and the board both have an option to terminate the contract at the end of six months. The board and Mr. Raskin also agreed to do a midterm evaluation of their relationship at the end of three months.

Memorandums obtained by the Gazette this week reveal just how brittle the relationship has become.

A draft memorandum of understanding developed by Mr. Raskin and his attorney last August framed a tough, "hair trigger" termination clause in Mr. Raskin's contract that would have entitled him to half a year's severance pay within seven days if he determined that board members were interfering in his job. The clause was never adopted by the board.

More recently, as work went on behind the scenes on the contract amendment that was adopted last month, Mr. Raskin sent a letter to Ms. Roessel that singled out Mrs. Grossman as a chief enemy.

"I need some remedy during the term of the amendment should board behavior deteriorate," Mr. Raskin wrote to Ms. Roessel. "If Grace is outvoted, I am concerned she will use the chairmanship to make life difficult (e.g. reading letters out loud at board meetings, etc.)," he also wrote.

Mr. Raskin was away this week and could not be reached for comment. Mr. Sayers, who also worked on the RFP, said it was developed with the idea of trying to reduce traffic congestion on the Cape.

"I think the criteria reflect initial thoughts as to what would be a successful service for the people," he said. "The ability to carry more passengers will give us more flexibility as well. If the service is going to grow, you have to demonstrate that you will be able to handle a growth in the market. And I think the hope is that good service from New Bedford will result in a migration of traffic from Cape Cod to New Bedford - and that is one of the stated concerns of the Steamship Authority, to try to reduce traffic congestion on the Cape."