Boat Line Terminal Plans in New Delay; Questions Include Scope, Funding

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

The Steamship Authority Oak Bluffs terminal reconstruction project is now in a state of growing disarray, as town leaders struggle to understand the status of the project and boat line managers continue to draw lines in the sand - and withdraw their environmental applications.

The SSA yesterday pulled back its application from the Oak Bluffs conservation commission for the reconstruction project.

"It has been withdrawn," declared Harold Morsilli, a vice president for the Maguire Group Inc. and project manager for the ferry terminal project.

The terminal project must clear environmental hurdles at both the state and local level in order to move forward. An application with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) was also withdrawn last week.

Mr. Morsilli said both applications will be resubmitted, once they are reshaped to address questions that were raised about the environmental impacts from the project.

A plan to meet with the Oak Bluffs selectmen tonight was also delayed by two weeks, while boat line managers step back to put their ducks in a row.

The $10 million project has been in the planning stage for the last four years.

Construction is now not due to start until the fall of 2005 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, questions continued to surface about the status of a federal grant that the SSA plans to use to help rebuild the terminal.

In a testy letter to the chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen last week, the director of maintenance and engineering for the boat line said some $750,000 in federal grant money may be at risk if there are any more delays in the project.

"Considerable delay can jeopardize the costs and the grant," wrote Carl Walker in the letter.

Yesterday Mr. Walker took steps to tone down his remarks, also admitting that he was wrong when he said in the letter that the SSA had held a number of meetings, both formal and informal, with the conservation commission about the terminal project.

"Looking back over our records, I was mistaken. There was one informal meeting but there were no formal meetings," Mr. Walker said.

The federal grant has a long history and in fact dates back to 2000 when it was originally given to the city of New Bedford through the U.S. Department of Transportation ferry boat discretionary program. Records in Cong. Bill Delahunt's office in Washington show that the grant money was earmarked in two pieces for New Bedford ferry terminal work - in 2000, $500,000 was earmarked, and in 2002 another $1.45 million was earmarked.

The language in the earmark shows that the money was designated only for the city of New Bedford. Originally the grant money was intended to go toward the construction of a high-speed passenger ferry.

But the high-speed ferry project bogged down and eventually changed colors altogether when the boat line decided to convert the entire New Bedford route to a private operation. Later, after a brief spat over who owned the grant money, New Bedford city officials and boat line governors agreed to split it. In October of 2002, SSA governors voted to let New Bedford use half the money for work on the State Pier, and the other half would go toward the Oak Bluffs terminal reconstruction project.

The grant money continues to age, as delays continue to plague the terminal project.

Also the project continues to stray farther away from the core criteria for the grant money.

Ferry boat discretionary funds are intended for public projects at public terminals with access to public transportation.

In an updated grant application two years ago, the boat line outlined its own plan for service; the application predated the plan to contract with a private carrier to operate the service. The application also said construction would begin in the fall of 2003.

Mr. Walker said he has been in regular contact with the state official at the Massachusetts Highway Department who administers the federal grant.

"I've had ongoing discussions with people at discretionary funding - they understand there have been delays and they are working with us to extend the timeline on the grant," Mr. Walker said.

He said state and federal officials do not know about the latest delays in the construction start date.

"I am trying to talk to these people and keep the grants going, but I have not informed them that due to the latest permitting issues we will have another delay," Mr. Walker said.

He said if the SSA loses the grant money it will not kill the project, but then more capital funding will be required from the public boat line.

"Should we lose the grant the board will have to approve an additional $750,000 in funding and the rate payers of the Vineyard will have to pay that cost," Mr. Walker said.

SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin said yesterday that he hopes to keep the grant money intact, but he admitted that it has had a long and circuitous route.

"This thing has morphed more than once and I know there is a wave in Washington that says use it or lose it. But we've talked them off the ledge once already and we hope to keep it," Mr. Raskin said. "I'm not saying we've lost it yet, and I'm not saying we haven't. We just know they have been very anxious," he added.

The Oak Bluffs terminal reconstruction project has also seen a number of changes in the last four years.

At the outset it was pegged as an ambitious $15 million project, but it has since been scaled back. In the latest permutation, the SSA has proposed leasing the old town hall building to use as a passenger terminal and public restroom instead of building a new structure. Located on the landside of Oak Bluffs avenue from the SSA pier, the former town hall has sat largely empty since it was vacated by town employees about two years ago. The town police station is housed in the rear of the building.

Mr. Walker said yesterday that he hopes to get the reconstruction project back on a clear track after the environmental applications are reworked and resubmitted. Mr. Raskin agreed.

"From our point of view the applications aren't important - what we want to do is sit down and see what the problems are," he said.

In a letter sent to Mr. Walker late last week, the Oak Bluffs town administrator made it clear that both the town and the boat line would be well served by better communication .

"Selectman Richard Combra shared with the other selectmen the letter he received from you on June 1 . . . . the majority reacted with dismay and disagreement at your characterizations of the course of events over the last four years," wrote Casey Sharpe. The town administrator also said that the selectmen will request all copies of grant documents from the SSA.

"We will get our information together," Mr. Walker said.