New Bedford Plan Retires Schamonchi

If Approved, Private Company Will Run Two Smaller Boats Instead, Joining Fast Ferry

By JULIA WELLS

After a bumpy three-year journey that spawned some of the most hostile politics in the history of the Steamship Authority, the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi will now become a surplus vessel, boat line governors said yesterday.

SSA managers announced that they had received a bid to operate the Schamonchi route from an affiliate formed by New England Fast Ferry. A private ferry consortium that also will run year-round high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard beginning next summer, New England Fast Ferry plans to charter two smaller vessels to replace the Schamonchi.

"The Steamship Authority will no longer be running service to New Bedford with fast ferries or slow ferries. A private company will now run both fast and slow service," declared Vineyard authority governor Kathryn A. Roessel at the monthly boat line meeting.

Held in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven on a frigid morning with light snow, yesterday's meeting was sparsely attended and only a bare quorum of three board members was present. Nantucket governor Grace Grossman and New Bedford governor David Oliveira did not attend because of the weather.

As required by statute, Barnstable governor Robert O'Brien took the gavel as board chairman for the coming year.

The new affiliate of New England Fast Ferry being formed to run the Schamonchi route is named New Bedford Traditional Ferry Company. The principals in both companies are the same.

If the plan is approved, all New Bedford-Vineyard ferry service next summer will run between the State Pier in the Whaling City and the SSA pier in Oak Bluffs. The Schamonchi formerly ran out of the Billy Woods Wharf in New Bedford.

New Bedford city officials want ferry service to run out of the State Pier because they are hoping to attract more business to downtown New Bedford.

Turning the Schamonchi route over to a private operator is one step in a series of acrobatics that the boat line is required to perform in order to contract for high-speed ferry service from New Bedford. Several months ago the state auditor told the SSA that it could not discontinue the Schamonchi route without violating the Pacheco Act, a state law that forbids state agencies from using private contractors unless a cost savings can be demonstrated. Now the plan making the Schamonchi route private must be approved by the state auditor before it can be voted on by the boat line board.

The Schamonchi has been a huge money loser since the boat line bought it for $1.7 million in January of 2001. The purchase was masterminded by former Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker, who had planned to replace the conventional ferry with high-speed service.

But the plan for high-speed service went awry for two years during a period of stormy politics and changeover on the SSA board. Along the way Mr. Parker lost his seat on the board and the state legislature adopted new enabling legislation expanding the board of governors from three to five members. Voting members from Barnstable and New Bedford were added to the board.

Finally last year the newly constituted board approved a plan to contract with New England Fast Ferry for the New Bedford service. The company is building a new high-speed ferry.

At yesterday's meeting SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin said projections prepared by boat line treasurer Wayne Lamson show that the SSA would lose $950,000 on the Schamonchi if it continued to operate next year, because running from the State Pier adds another 20 minutes to the trip, creating the need for a triple crew. Mr. Lamson said year-end numbers show the Schamonchi lost $750,000 this year.

The SSA put out a request for proposals late last year for a private operator to take over the Schamonchi route. The deadline for proposals was three days ago; New England Fast Ferry was the sole bidder. This came as no surprise, since the fast ferry company contract with the boat line required that it bid on the Schamonchi service.

The complicated deal includes a plan for the boat line to help subsidize the service by paying New England Fast Ferry $250,000 a year for the next two years.

"This represents a savings of $700,000 a year," Mr. Raskin said.

"The state put handcuffs on us and said we cannot discontinue the service," Ms. Roessel said.

Mr. Raskin continued to express doubts about the financial viability of the New Bedford ferry route.

"We are giving away the gravy," complained Sean Burke, a vessel pilot/mate who clashed with board members on an array of issues. Boat line unions are opposed to converting the Schamonchi to a private operation.

"This was not gravy in our portfolio. We started bleeding and now we are stopping the bleeding," Mr. Raskin shot back.

Instead of using the 650-passenger Schamonchi, New England Fast Ferry plans to charter two smaller 315-passenger ferries that have been used for whale-watching excursions. The Portuguese Princess will be the primary vessel, with the Onset Chief as a backup vessel. The proposal also includes a provision for allowing passengers to travel on the fast ferry in the unlikely event both slow boats are full.

If the proposal is approved, fares will go up from $10 to $12 each way for adults.

Mr. Raskin said the boat line will keep the Schamonchi - for now - as a surplus vessel. "We're not sure what we will do with it, but we have some options," Mr. Raskin said. He said the boat line may consider using the Schamonchi on the inter-Island run which operates in the summer months between the Vineyard and Nantucket.

In other business yesterday, SSA managers announced that a weekend standby program for cars will be tested next July. The program will allow 15 cars a day to travel on a standby basis.

The board also heard a progress report from engineer Carl Walker on the design of a new ferry to replace the Islander, and they approved a new policy that will allow a special exemption for college students on excursion fares. Students will be allowed to use four excursion trips a year with no time limit on the return.

Another proposed policy for pet restrictions on the Nantucket fast ferry Flying Cloud was put off for a month because Mrs. Grossman was not present. Developed by public relations director Paula Peters, the pet policy is based on transportation industry standards for pet travel and includes a provision for keeping pets inside carriers on board the high-speed ferry.

Ms. Roessel, who often brings her Cairn terrier to meetings, threw cold water on the proposed policy. "Transportation industry standards are not Island standards when it comes to dogs," she said. "Many Island people own labradors and golden retrievers and they are used to taking their large dogs on leashes on our buses and our ferries. For the board to even consider a recommendation based on transportation industry standards could set a terrible precedent."