Boat Line Eyes Nantucket Freight Issue

By ALEXIS TONTI

A Steamship Authority agreement with the town of Barnstable turned into a point of contention yesterday at the monthly boat line meeting, where Nantucket officials and residents objected adamantly to taking any steps that would force them to run freight service between that island and New Bedford.

"The SSA lost $3 million in two years on the far shorter Martha's Vineyard route, proving to any objective observer that New Bedford is not economically feasible as the off-Cape embarkation point for Nantucket-bound trucks," declared Nantucket SSA governor Grace Grossman.

The monthly meeting of the boat line board was held at the Nantucket Inn.

SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin was at his daughter's law school graduation in New York city and did not attend.

The debate over freight service began when Oak Bluffs port council member Marc Hanover presented the board of governors with the port council's recommendation that the SSA comply with the terms of the Barnstable agreement.

The agreement is a complicated deal signed by the SSA and the town of Barnstable in 1997 in an effort to relieve traffic congestion generated by the number of trucks moving through Barnstable to reach the Hyannis terminal.

In simple terms, the boat line agreed to develop an alternative mainland facility for Nantucket freight by the year 2008, in exchange for the right to run extra freight trips between Hyannis and Nantucket.

The boat line also agreed to identify an off-Cape site for the freight facility by the end of 2003.

To date the SSA has not designated an alternative freight port.

The Barnstable agreement includes a kind of catch-all caveat that says the new freight service will be pursued only if it is economically feasible.

Yesterday Mr. Hanover urged SSA management to acknowledge the Barnstable agreement and put out a request for proposals for a private operator to run freight service between Nantucket and a mainland port.

He said the port council had identified the New Bedford State Pier as the most viable site, but that other ports could be pursued.

Mrs. Grossman opposed the idea.

"Practically speaking, the pilot project for New Bedford to Martha's Vineyard showed using New Bedford was not economically feasible and was most unpopular with some of the truckers forced to use the route," said Mrs. Grossman, reading from a lengthy prepared statement.

Mrs. Grossman also said that designating New Bedford "would provide a graphic illustration of why people on Nantucket want to control their own lifeline and work with their closest neighbors in Barnstable."

But port council members and other SSA board members hammered on the idea that simply looking into the feasibility of freight service between Nantucket and an off-Cape port - be it New Bedford or another site - would not force the implementation of such service.

Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn A. Roessel added that a literal adherence to the agreement would satisfy everyone involved.

"Nothing will be lost in following the letter of the agreement and designating a port. The agreement doesn't require us to do anything more that isn't cost effective, and it will protect us from lawsuits from Barnstable for not living up to the agreement that we signed," said Ms. Roessel.

"You have to honor the agreement. Throw out an RFP, see if somebody says they can afford to run service," said Tisbury port council member Tom Pachico. "If you don't, you will sit at a stalemate where you are. Why do you want to get lawyers involved?"

Nantucket residents also were concerned that freight service between the island and New Bedford would be forced on them.

Timothy Soverino, chairman of the Nantucket board of selectmen, echoed Mrs. Grossman's assessment that freight service from New Bedford would be a losing proposition and said they should not have to pursue it.

"This will have a direct cost effect on the people in the room here today and on the island," said Mr. Soverino.

"The [Barnstable town] council recognizes that we're neighbors, recognizes the revenue that comes from Nantucket, and they're not looking to create problems," said Barnstable governor and board chairman Robert O'Brien.

New Bedford representative David Oliveira took exception to the suggestion that all freight service from the Whaling City would cost the boat line money.

"We should take an open-minded approach to this discussion of whether it is economically feasible," Mr. Oliveira said.

The Nantucket selectmen acknowledged that island residents have become skittish in recent months regarding boat line issues and requested that SSA management involve them in any future discussion of the Barnstable agreement.

The board of governors ultimately voted to pass the port council's recommendation on to management, and SSA general counsel Steven Sayers said they would set up a meeting with Nantucket selectmen to review the matter.

In other business, the board of governors revived portions of the advertising program, which they had effectively scrapped just last month.

At that time board members turned down several policy proposals and ultimately approved only two minor initiatives - to allow advertising on published schedules and brochures and on any authority ticket kiosk.

Yesterday SSA treasurer Wayne C. Lamson, taking the lead in Mr. Raskin's absence, presented a more restrictive advertising program to the board. Mr. Lamson asked board members to approve the placement of advertising in several additional locations, including on the SSA Web site, inside terminal restrooms and on the ferries, both on the freight decks and inside the restrooms.

Mrs. Grossman objected, saying, "I think that we said very strongly at the last meeting that we didn't want to do it . . . I think advertising in the restrooms is ridiculous, and we've been asked to get off the freight deck, so who is going to see it?"

With little other comment, the board approved the proposal. Mrs. Grossman cast the sole dissenting vote and Mr. O'Brien abstained.