SSA Leaders Study New Bedford Service

Fast Ferry Link to Vineyard Terminals in 2004 Requires Majority Backing from Top Boat Line Governors

By CHRIS BURRELL

WOODS HOLE - Year-round fast ferry service between the Vineyard and New Bedford could become a reality by next year if Steamship Authority governors approve a recommendation made by senior managers at yesterday's monthly meeting in Woods Hole.

Despite questions about cost and viability, the proposal to license a private firm to offer the new service is already winning some favorable response.

Fred Raskin, the chief executive officer at the Steamship Authority, recommended that governors select New England Fast Ferry LLC, one of two ferry companies that responded to a request for proposals (RFP) two months ago.

SSA governors will not vote on the recommendation until at least their next meeting in April, but the seven-member port council has already thrown its support behind the plan, and one member of Tisbury harbor management committee told governors that his board is pleased with the environmentally sensitive approach of the fast ferries.

And while Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel told the board she wants to see how Islanders react to the idea, she later told the Gazette that she is encouraged by the proposal which would allow New England Fast Ferry to operate a year-round passenger service to New Bedford.

"Previous proposals for fast ferries were summer only and were just skimming off the cream," she told the Gazette. "They offered the Vineyard nothing we didn't already have. But this new proposal offers us something."

In a proposal to the SSA, New England Fast Ferry said it would charge $20 for a one-way ticket and make the trip in an hour.

The Steamship Authority already operates the Schamonchi, a passenger-only ferry purchased two years ago, on a summer schedule, charging passengers $10 each way for the 90-minute passage.

Under the licensing arrangement, New England Fast Ferry would pay the SSA a fee of about $100,000 a year depending on how many passengers it carried. The company, a newly formed consortium based in Falmouth, would assume the capital costs of building two ferry boats, each capable of carrying 149 passengers.

There was little discussion yesterday among the board about the proposal, but both Ms. Roessel and Falmouth governor Robert Marshall said they needed answers to many questions.

"This is still in a very premature stage," said Mr. Marshall. "There's lots to be done here."

Ms. Roessel has already planned two public sessions on the Island so she can gauge whether Vineyarders want year round service to New Bedford. "I want to go back to the Vineyard and make sure people are comfortable with this," she said.

She said two meetings are scheduled to take up the proposal. One happens April 3 at 6:15 p.m. at the Martha's Vineyard Commission in Oak Bluffs. The other session is scheduled for April 13 at 2 p.m. at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

Ms. Roessel's questions about the proposal center around revenue. Will there be guaranteed parking for permit holders in New Bedford? Can the SSA tap into the revenue from parking fees? Could the Steamship Authority buy out the service if it proves to be successful?

She would also like to see a shorter term for the licensing arrangement, three or four years as opposed to the 12 years currently requested in the proposal.

"It's very important we keep our eye on the ball, understand why we're doing this and how we will measure the success and the cost of this," Ms. Roessel said at the meeting. "We need to take enough time to know that the entire burden of this doesn't fall on the Martha's Vineyard rate payers."

What remains unanswered is just how money the SSA would lose to the proposed fast ferry. "There are a range of cost scenarios, and it's difficult to estimate," said Mr. Raskin.

The management plan is that the lost revenues would be offset by the licensing fee, docking fees and possibly a share of the parking receipts.

But money issues aside, the desired pay-off would be less car traffic on the Cape and specifically in Falmouth, where town leaders have been complaining for years about traffic congestion they blame on vehicles headed for the ferries in Woods Hole.

"We estimate that over 15,000 cars will use the New Bedford route rather than traveling to Woods Hole," Mr. Raskin wrote in his recommendation to the board.

After the meeting, Ms. Roessel spoke to the Gazette about the potential benefits of the proposed fast ferry for Islanders.

"The first boat would come in before 8 o'clock, giving access to the New Bedford labor market," she said. "It gives Vineyarders the chance to access certain cultural advantages in New Bedford. Kids on the Vineyard could commute daily to college in New Bedford or at UMass Dartmouth."

Ms. Roessel also pointed to the dolly freight service New England Fast Ferry promised to provide. She said that such service offered on a year-round basis would meet the needs of Vineyard Haven's waterfront businesses.

Jim Lobdell, a member of the Tisbury harbor management committee, told the governors that his board met with representatives from New England Fast Ferry and was impressed with the plans.

"They seem extremely sensitive to the environmental scale of the vessel," he said. "We would like to look at the whole RFP."

In the past, Tisbury officials have criticized the presence of fast ferries in their harbor, citing environmental concerns including the smell of the fuel and the wake left by the boats.

But the debate on the fast ferries is likely to go on beyond April. Ms. Roessel has already asked Mr. Raskin for more time to consider the proposal, and others are raising questions about whether year-round service is even necessary.

Nat Lowell of Nantucket said Vineyarders won't pay $40 to take a passenger ferry to New Bedford when they can pay the same amount to bring their cars over to Woods Hole. "The idea that there's a market for winter fast ferry service is mind-boggling," he said.

"But if there's no market and nobody takes it, it doesn't cost us anything," said Ms. Roessel.

Falmouth port council member Eric Asendorf argued there is a significant population of commuters to the Vineyard who would use the ferry. "It would open up the labor market that's desperately needed on the Vineyard," he said.

Mr. Raskin admitted that the SSA would lose money if it tried to operate a fast ferry in the winter months.

And while governors begin the debate of whether to back the licensing deal for a fast ferry to New Bedford, they are also facing a drop in traffic on the boats they already have running to both Islands. Truck traffic to both the Vineyard and Nantucket was down more than seven per cent in January compared to the same month last year. Automobile traffic fell 2.5 per cent in the same period.