Breaking Up the Boat Line?

Nantucket Rallies Around Idea; CEO Says It Would Be Costly; Representative and Senator Cautious in Remarks

By JULIA WELLS

A quiet move by the Nantucket Steamship Authority governor to explore the breakup of the 42-year-old boat line grew legs this week, as the people of Nantucket rallied around their representative and the people of the Vineyard struggled to absorb the news.

Last week it was revealed that Grace Grossman had privately approached high-ranking state officials about the possibility of splitting the state-chartered Steamship Authority into two separate entities. It is now known that Mrs. Grossman met with Transportation Secretary Daniel A. Grabauskas, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, and Sen. Therese Murray, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

Mrs. Grossman's meetings with state officials took place without the knowledge of the four other members of the boat line board of governors.

"I feel like this is a cry for help from Grace, and I am trying to understand what is going on here," said Kathryn A. Roessel, the Vineyard SSA governor, this week.

"I can't comment on the politics but I don't think that this is necessarily a good thing for the Steamship Authority to do - nor do I think it's good for the two Islands," said SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin.

Mr. Raskin said breaking the boat line into two entities would without question be more costly to both the Vineyard and Nantucket.

"You're talking two treasurers, two general counsels, two CEOs – you're talking about $3 or $4 million in expenses that you're going to have to duplicate," he said, adding: "I can guarantee you that $320 round trip to Nantucket is going to become a $400 round trip."

News reports surfaced last week about Mrs. Grossman's activities on Beacon Hill, but the Nantucket governor had no public comment until this week.

Yesterday a story in the Inquirer & Mirror of Nantucket reported that Mrs. Grossman has been investigating the possibility of a boat line breakup since October of last year. In an interview, Mrs. Grossman downplayed the news.

"There is nothing new under the sun. We've talked about this for a long time," she told the Inquirer & Mirror.

An editorial in the newspaper threw support to Mrs. Grossman and called for the appointment of a high-level task force to study the question.

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington and Sen. Rob O'Leary both said this week that they knew about Mrs. Grossman's visits to Beacon Hill.

"Grace has approached me on at least one occasion and raised this issue, but it was in the most informal way," Mr. O'Leary said. "It never took the shape of a formal proposal and it certainly never rose to the level of legislation," he added.

Ditto for Mr. Turkington.

"She kept me aware of her doings," he said. The longtime Cape and Islands representative framed his remarks in words of solemn respect for Mrs. Grossman and her late husband, who served on the boat line board for more than 20 years.

"Between them they have given a lot of years to the Steamship Authority board and they have given all of their lives to the good of Nantucket. So any idea that either one of them has deserves thoughtful attention," Mr. Turkington said.

But both Mr. Turkington and Mr. O'Leary admitted that bringing any boat line issue onto Beacon Hill is risky in the aftermath of the hostile takeover attempt by the city of New Bedford two years ago. The divisive issue played out on Beacon Hill for months and when it was all over many state lawmakers were audibly weary of the Steamship Authority.

"I think there would be a collective groan, frankly, if a new Steamship Authority issue surfaced," Mr. O'Leary said.

"There is no appetite for another war," Mr. Turkington agreed.

"But if there were a consensus among the players that would be a different story," he added.

Mr. O'Leary echoed a similar sentiment.

"I think Grace would have to talk to the various communities that are involved and develop some kind of consensus. And there would have to be some kind of clear public benefit to all of this. It has to be demonstrated that there is some sort of problem," he said.

Mr. Turkington predicted that the topic will attract debate.

"We'll see where it goes - this is obviously the first time this idea has been publicly aired and there may be a lot of public interest. There is a whole gamut of questions that are going to be raised, like governance, like finances, like what are the pros and cons for all the communities that are affected," he said, concluding:

"But as we all know, the Steamship stage has many players on it, and I expect now there is going to be a lot of discussion around this. And there should be. Why? The short answer is because someone of Grace's stature brought it up."