Nantucket Launches Study

By JULIA WELLS

Marking a painful new chapter in the checkered history of the Steamship Authority, the people of Nantucket voted, without dissent, at a public meeting this week to launch a formal study of whether to secede from the boat line which has been their lifeline for over four decades.

The study will be privately funded and led by a private group that was spearheaded by Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman and port council member Flint Ranney.

"In November Steamship Authority management sat stone-faced and looked at us like we had three heads. Hopefully now they will look at us and know that we are serious about taking back our lifeline," declared Nantucket resident Jamie Ranney.

"Maintenance is atrocious, the boats are filthy, and now they are getting ready to spend money to build a new boat to the Vineyard. We don't want to be part of that," said Nantucket harbor master Dave Fronzuto.

"The Steamship Authority is the epitome of arrogance," said Dr. Timothy Lepore.

The comments came during a public forum on Nantucket on Monday night, when more than 450 residents turned out to discuss the burning topic of the day: whether Nantucket should withdraw from the state-chartered SSA and form its own independent boat line.

Held at the Nantucket High School, the forum was sponsored by the town selectmen.

"The question tonight is simply this: Do you want the designees to the Steamship Authority and their agents to continue to investigate the viability of an independent ferry system to operate between Nantucket and the mainland?" said board chairman Finn Murphy, who moderated the meeting.

After just over an hour of cogent discussion, the overflow crowd of islanders answered the question with a single, resounding voice: "Aye." A call for nays was greeted with silence.

"If you can build a better mousetrap … it makes sense to take this step now," said Bob Jones, a member of the Barnstable city council who is also a member of the boat line port council. The endorsement of the study from Mr. Jones was seen as an important piece of a complicated puzzle now unfolding around the boat line. Barnstable is the mainland port community for Nantucket.

Barnstable SSA governor Robert O'Brien has also said he supports the study.

The meeting Monday opened with a prolonged standing ovation for Mrs. Grossman, the embattled boat line governor who has been at odds with her own board and senior managers at the SSA for months.

"As my grandchildren would say, this is an awesome turnout," she said.

"Of the people, by the people and for the people is how we must proceed," she also said.

The move to explore the possible breakup of the boat line surfaced several weeks ago when it was revealed that Mrs. Grossman had privately approached high-ranking state officials to discuss a split.

There has been growing dissatisfaction on Nantucket in the last year over rising fares, declining quality of service and a perceived arrogant attitude from senior management about the problems.

Problems came to a head at the November SSA meeting on Nantucket - the meeting erupted in anger over a J. Crew marketing plan during the Christmas Stroll weekend. The plan was later scrapped, but the damage was done.

On Monday night the November meeting was a prominent theme. In her remarks Mrs. Grossman said the genesis of the problems can be traced to two years ago when the enabling legislation was changed and New Bedford was brought back into the fold as a port and an active member of the board for the first time in 40 years.

Calling the addition of New Bedford onto the board a "slippery slope," Mrs. Grossman also said: "The focus and the finances are now New Bedford oriented, not lifeline oriented."

Others echoed the New Bedford theme.

"The Steamship Authority hasn't been broken until recently. It worked until Mr. Leontire [former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire] convinced the state legislature that we are bunch of rich bigots - he couldn't convince us to go 55 miles, but he convinced the Vineyard to go 22 instead of seven," declared Nat Lowell. "Grace, I don't know how to to say it, but you've got my blessing," he added.

"We have to get an act of the state legislature to get this done - they're the ones who gave us New Bedford, and they're the ones who can take it apart," said Curtis Barnes.

"The act of the legislature changing the board is a fiasco," said Dr. Lepore.

Early in the meeting Jamie Ranney read a line from a letter written by Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel last week that took a sharp poke at Nantucket and Mrs. Grossman.

As Mr. Ranney read, the crowd groaned.

"If that doesn't sum up the arrogant attitude. . . . I haven't seen anything but put-downs from the Vineyard, and the first thing they should do is apologize," Mr. Ranney said.

"The two greatest problems the Steamship Authority has are in its name - number one, there are no more steamships, and number two there is too much authority and it's misplaced," said Philip Read, who served as the boat line governor from 1976 until 1983. He advocated for abolishing the central reservation office in Mashpee and centering the SSA reservation offices on the Vineyard and Nantucket.

"I think it's very telling that we have such a huge turnout and Steamship Authority chief executive officer Fred Raskin could not find the time to meet with us," said Steven Tornovish, the former Nantucket member of the boat line financial advisory board.

Mr. Raskin said later that he did not attend the meeting because he was told to stay away. "Grace made it clear she didn't want us there. I knew I was going to take a hit for it, and I did," he said.

Mr. Raskin said he did not discount the seriousness of the study, but he said he is now content to see how things play out.

"I believe that they are doing what they say they are doing - whether that results in a new boat line, I have no way of knowing. We're going to keep doing the best job we can. And all the talk is really very disruptive," he said.

Ms. Roessel said she welcomes the study, but she criticized Mrs. Grossman for being at the center of it.

"I think it's a really good thing they are investigating this, but I don't think that it's a good thing that Grace Grossman is heading up the investigation. I think that puts her in a conflict, and I think it also puts the other members in an uncomfortable position," Ms. Roessel said.

She concluded on a gloomy note: "I really believe the Islands have interests in common and that they are stronger together than they are apart, but I have to say that at this point I have to concede defeat in trying to work cooperatively with Mrs. Grossman."

The feasibility study is a step into uncharted territory. On Monday Mrs. Grossman announced that Tom Kiley, a Boston attorney, would lead the study group. In comments to the press following the meeting, Mr. Kiley said the group includes about 10 people whose identities have not yet been made public. He did say that the group plans to hire a lobbyist.

Discussions about the possible split began in earnest last summer when Galen Robbins, the former Falmouth boat line governor, traveled to Nantucket to meet with Mrs. Grossman and Mr. Murphy to talk about the idea. Mr. Murphy confirmed that in July Mr. Robbins did some kind of financial projections for an independent boat line between Nantucket and Hyannis. It is unclear how many selectmen participated in the meeting.

On Monday after the meeting, Mr. Murphy said the feasibility study will be ultimately be reported out publicly and through the selectmen. Beyond that, he said it is too early to say how the study process will unfold.

"Tonight is getting onto the field - we haven't started to play ball yet," he said.