Ferry Fee Proposal Advances in Boston

It Could Only Have Happened This Year: Added Fee of $1 Per Ferry Ticket Is Proposed for Municipal Relief

By JULIA WELLS

A bill chugged along in the state legislature this week that would allow all port communities in the region to charge a fee of $1 per ticket for visitors traveling on ferries.

If the bill is approved and voters in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs agree to adopt the fee, it could translate to several hundred thousand dollars each year to support public safety and port improvements in the towns.

The fee was proposed as part of a municipal relief plan released early this week in the legislature. Aimed at softening the blow from drastic state cuts to local aid because of a $3 billion state budget shortfall, the plan allows cities and towns to raise a variety of fees on everything from parking fines and driving infractions to fire inspections. Early retirement packages and deferred pension fund payments are also included in the plan.

The $1 ferry fee would be imposed on one-way or round-trip tickets for passengers, excluding commuters and excursion fare customers. The fee would not apply to car fares.

The fee would be subject to local referendums in the port towns in Dukes, Barnstable, Nantucket and Bristol Counties. The port towns are Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Falmouth, Barnstable, Nantucket, New Bedford and Fairhaven. Because New Bedford and Fairhaven share the same harbor, the two cities would split the proceeds from the fee, with New Bedford receiving 75 per cent and Fairhaven receiving 25 per cent.

The fee would apply to all ferries, private and public. Ferry operators would be responsible for collecting the fee and then turning it over to the state commissioner of revenue. The money would then go to local towns with the requirement that the funds be deposited in a special account and used for public safety, harbor services and port infrastructure improvements.

The Steamship Authority and Hy-Line Cruises are both opposed to the fee and lobbied against it in the legislature this week - but to little avail.

The boat line and the Hy-Line carry hundreds of thousands of passengers between the Cape and Islands every year.

Gov. Mitt Romney has made it clear that he is against any new taxes in local communities, and a one per cent local option sales tax was rejected by the legislature. But the ferry fee survived.

"This bill could have only happened this year," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington.

The bill was approved by the House early in the week and it was expected to be approved by the state Senate yesterday. After that it will head to the governor's desk for a signature.

Governor Romney has indicated that he will sign the bill.

"A whole lot of ideas came out on the table, but a lot of them foundered because they looked like a tax. Because this is a fee and because it has a causal relationship between the service and the people who use it, it survived," Mr. Turkington said.

The ferry fee was one of a number of measures proposed by Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary.

If the bill becomes law it will up to the selectmen in each town to decide whether to put the question before voters on a ballot.

Mr. Turkington said yesterday that he expects the bill will be approved.

"My guess is that it will hold up," he said.

The municipal relief bill comes during a week when state lawmakers were busy putting the finishing touches on Governor Romney's $22 billion state budget. Early in the week, legislators overturned the governor's veto of some $23 million in local aid, but Mr. Turkington said yesterday that the restored funding will have little, if any impact, on the Cape and Islands. The local aid cuts will translate to a 20 per cent cut in state funding for local schools.

If it is approved, money from the ferry fee cannot be used for education.