Boat Line Ready to Vote on Fast Ferry

By JULIA WELLS

An abrupt announcement by Steamship Authority managers early this week that they will convert the passenger ferry Schamonchi to a private operation led to another abrupt announcement yesterday: A license agreement with a private operator who wants to run high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard is now set for a vote next week.

The boat line governors will take a final vote on the license agreement at the monthly SSA meeting on Nantucket next Thursday morning.

Vineyard Steamship Authority governor Kathryn A. Roessel said yesterday that a special public meeting will be held on the Vineyard on Tuesday night to discuss the details of the license agreement. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

"Full details - we're going to lay it all out on Tuesday night," she said.

It is understood that the boat line is now poised to sign a seven-year contract with New England Fast Ferry LLC, a private ferry consortium, for year-round high-speed passenger service between the New Bedford State Pier and the Vineyard. The service is planned for startup next summer.

Other terms of the proposed contract include:

* An agreement for the SSA to take over the service at the end of seven years if it is profitable.

* An agreement for the SSA to share parking revenues with the city of New Bedford from a city-owned parking lot that will serve the ferry.

New Bedford has not yet agreed to the shared parking fees, but Ms. Roessel said yesterday that she will vote on the recommendation from management next week as is - and New Bedford can take the deal or leave it.

"I'd rather see no New Bedford service than have us undertake any kind of New Bedford service that puts our ticket prices at risk," the Vineyard boat line governor declared.

Ms. Roessel also confirmed that the complicated side show now under way with the Schamonchi is in fact a strategy move aimed at clearing the way for the formal handshake with New England Fast Ferry.

In short form, the decision to convert the Schamonchi to a private operation will trigger the Pacheco law, the state anti-privatization law that now applies to the boat line since the enabling legislation was changed last year.

Under the Pacheco law, cost savings must be demonstrated before a state agency can convert a service from public to private - but this is not likely to be a difficult task since the Schamonchi has been swimming in red ink since the boat line bought it three years ago.

SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin downplayed the strategy yesterday, pointing instead to the huge losses on the ferry, which is expected to lose about $800,000 again this year even after a decision last month to shorten the season.

"Ridership is down 35 per cent; we're going to lose $800,000 in a shortened season - we're not making progress," Mr. Raskin said.

"It's not real strategy; you learn in law school that you can't prove the negative," he added.

But Ms. Roessel underscored the fact that the general counsel for the state auditor told the boat line last month that if the contract is signed with New England Fast Ferry, the boat line cannot discontinue service on the Schamonchi without triggering the Pacheco Act.

"You can't privatize twice, that's why we're doing it with the Schamonchi," she said.

She added:

"Nobody ever meant it to work out like this, but the purchase of the Schamonchi [three years ago, for $1.2 million], coupled with the fact that New Bedford made it impossible to do the trial fast ferry run [last year], coupled with the fact that the legislature saw fit to saddle us with Pacheco [last year] has brought us to a pretty complicated state of affairs - and we feel this is the least complicated way to unravel it and the least risky for the rate payers."

Mr. Raskin said senior managers have already taken steps to put out a request for proposals (RFP) for the Schamonchi; he said he is confident that the boat line will find a private operator. He also said the SSA plans to pay some kind of subsidy to the private operator, although he could not say how much. "I will tell you that it will be modest and it will not be forever," Mr. Raskin said.

Mr. Raskin met with boat line employees this week to discuss the impending change in the Schamonchi, which will translate to union job layoffs.

"I feel terrible about it, but our first duty is to the customer in terms of economics. I think New Bedford service is a good thing to have but not at unreasonable cost - the core function is what's important here: Woods Hole, Martha's Vineyard, Hyannis and Nantucket," Mr. Raskin said.

Ms. Roessel said on Tuesday night boat line managers will show the cost difference between contracting with a private operator and the Steamship Authority running a fast ferry service itself. Union leaders and some Vineyard residents - including Vineyard port council member Marc Hanover - are arguing the boat line should run its own fast ferry service. Ms. Roessel said she has seen the numbers and her conclusion is clear:

"I am prepared to vote on management's recommendation. Wayne Lamson [the longtime boat line treasurer] supports it, too. We invite everyone to come on Tuesday and give us their comments and tell us why it's a bad idea. And people should remember that the Vineyard is in the middle of two enormous capital projects right now - replacing the ferry Islander and refurbishing the Oak Bluffs wharf. To take on a third right now in an uncertain economic climate is not where I want to be."