Fast Ferry Plan Gets Approval

Would Link the Vineyard With New Bedford Next Summer; Meanwhile, Schamonchi Has Woes this Year

By JULIA WELLS

Steamship Authority governors danced a cha-cha this week over ferry service between New Bedford and Martha's Vineyard, taking one step back as they announced a delay in the start date for the passenger ferry Schamonchi this year - and one step forward as they voted to move ahead on a plan to develop high-speed passenger service for next year.

The vote to move ahead on the high-speed ferry plan was unanimous at the monthly boat line meeting in Woods Hole yesterday morning. The vote gives a green light to SSA senior managers to negotiate a contract with New England Fast Ferry LLC for the service. A second vote by the board, following those contract talks, is still required before the deal is final. If it wins final approval, the high-speed passenger service is expected to begin in the summer of 2004.

The vote by the boat line board yesterday came over the eleventh-hour objection of the Dukes County Commission, which voted 5-1 on Wednesday night to ask the SSA to delay the service. In a letter delivered to the SSA yesterday, the county commission cited inadequate planning and public input as reasons to delay the vote.

But Vineyard boat line governor Kathryn A. Roessel was unfazed by the request.

"I think we need to vote today to send management out to negotiate the deal," Ms. Roessel said.

"This is going to be a complicated, multi-part deal. And if we don't end up getting everything in place, I will have no qualms about voting against this," she added.

A private ferry consortium based in Falmouth, New England Fast Ferry was one of two companies that responded to a request for proposals put out by the boat line earlier this year. Boston Harbor Cruises also submitted a proposal for a summer-only high-speed ferry service. At a boat line meeting two months ago management recommended New England Fast Ferry for the contract, partly because the company was proposing year-round service.

The proposal includes a plan to run two 149-passenger propeller-driven high-speed ferries between State Pier in New Bedford and the Vineyard all year long. Summer service to the Island would go to Oak Bluffs. Winter service is expected to run between New Bedford and Vineyard Haven, the only year-round SSA port on the Vineyard.

New Bedford governor David Oliveira thanked the board for their willingness to expand New Bedford ferry service.

"I'd like to thank the board for their open-mindedness and I look forward to working with everyone on the finer details," he said.

Those details include a plan by the SSA to take a cut of the parking revenue from a city parking lot planned for the ferry service.

SSA chief executive officer officer Fred C. Raskin said the contract will be negotiated with an eye toward developing a number of financial safeguards for the boat line. Lost revenue on the Woods Hole run is one of a number of concerns, the CEO said.

The boat line also made public an independent report from a naval architect that examined the engineering specifications for the two new ferries, which are not yet built.

Architects from Fox Associates said wake wash problems are not likely to be an issue, but the architects said certain other design characteristics may make the ferries prone to operating problems in bad weather. The architects recommended that the boat line require the company to install a ride control system and a reversible gear box for more maneuverability and stopping ability in an emergency.

Meanwhile, Mr. Raskin repeated yesterday the news, first reported last week, that the startup of service on the passenger ferry Schamonchi will likely be delayed because the owner of the Billy Woods Wharf and the city of New Bedford have been unable to come to terms over the lease of a parking lot near the wharf.

The Schamonchi was due to begin service on May 21, in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

The lease negotiations center on a 350-car parking lot that wharf owner Carl Pimentel leases from the city, adjacent to where the Schamonchi docks, outside the hurricane barrier. Mr. Pimentel had a five-year lease with an option to renew for five more years. The first half of the lease ran out last October, and the city said it would not renew. Later city officials offered to renew the lease for one year, but Mr. Pimentel wanted a longer commitment.

The SSA bought the Schamonchi two-and-a-half years ago for $1.3 million from the Thompson family, which ran the passenger ferry for 20 years. The ferry, which now runs between New Bedford and the boat line wharf in Oak Bluffs, is set to begin its third season under boat line ownership.

Mr. Raskin has said he does not want to get in the middle of the feud between city officials and the Pimentels, but yesterday he praised the city for being reasonable.

"I want to thank the city for its efforts," said Mr. Raskin. The SSA leases the wharf separately from the Pimentels, but amid the problems between the city and the Pimentels the state of the pier lease is in limbo.

Mr. Raskin said the boat line is now looking at a number of alternative dock spaces, including one at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. Former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire, now a member of the boat line port council, said he hopes to have an alternative dock arrangement ready for the boat line by early next week.

Mr. Leontire said the city wants to retake control of the parking lot near the Billy Woods Wharf because it represents a good source of revenue. "We estimate it could be as high as $350,000 to $500,000," Mr. Leontire said.

Yesterday Mike Pimentel, who is the son of Carl, blasted both the boat line and Mr. Leontire for what he called bad faith.

"The city of New Bedford is offering me a deal that I'm not taking - I don't want to do business with George Leontire," Mr. Pimentel declared. He said he no longer cares about the parking lot, but said he will still offer to lease the Billy Woods Wharf to the SSA.

"If the Steamship Authority wants to work out a reasonable docking fee the city can run that parking lot because I'm not interested," Mr. Pimentel said.

He said the alternative sites under consideration by the boat line are comparatively poor facilities with no parking, so passengers would need to be bussed from an off-site parking lot to the dock.

"It's not going to work," Mr. Pimentel said.

At the meeting yesterday Mr. Raskin highlighted another problem: He said any alternative dock site that is inside the hurricane barrier will add time to the trip, making it necessary to go to a triple crew at even more cost to the boat line.

Currently the Schamonchi loses about $800,000 a year.

In other boat line business yesterday, Mr. Raskin reported that revenues are sharply down for the year. Total revenues year to date for the month of April are $1 million under budget, the CEO said. Poor weather, a poor economy and the war in Iraq are all factors, Mr. Raskin said, but he said advance bookings are also down for the coming season. The boat line has plenty of reserve funds, but nevertheless Mr. Raskin said managers will consider an array of belt-tightening measures, including more automation for ticket sales and a hiring freeze. "We've got to be careful," Mr. Raskin said.

He also said the boat line plans to commit more money to advertising in the weeks ahead to raise visibility about its services, and may consider alternative sources of revenue such as selling tour bus tickets, selling advertising space on its buses and inside terminals and merchandising.

Excursion fares were touched on briefly during the discussion about finances; Mr. Raskin said the use of excursion fares continues to grow. Excursion fares - discounted round-trip fares - are intended to provide travel at reasonable rates for year-round Island residents.

Ms. Roessel said a recent examination revealed that the fares are being used heavily by the state police on the Vineyard.

"For a state agency that has its own budget to be availing itself of this is wrong," she said.