Steamship Authority Weathers Changes Through Long Year

By JAMES KINSELLA

As 2004 got under way at the Steamship Authority, there was some question about whether there would be a Steamship Authority in the future.

In mid-January Nantucket governor Grace Grossman confirmed that she had been exploring since the previous summer whether that island should secede from the boat line, an entity created by the state in 1960 to ensure reliable, affordable ferry travel between Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and the mainland.

In early February, a public meeting on Nantucket about the issue drew more than 450 people, who expressed their unanimous support for Mrs. Grossman's investigation. Splitting the SSA in two was discussed throughout the region.

Other matters would buffet the boat line over the course of the year, including the deaths of its two Island representatives - Mrs. Grossman and Kathryn A. Roessel - the resignation of its first chief executive officer, Fred C. Raskin, and controversies over new security measures.

But as 2005 dawns, stability is the new watchword at the boat line, with longtime employee Wayne Lamson taking over as general manager, and a new spirit of cooperation apparent between Nantucket and the Vineyard. The two Islands control 70 per cent of the weighted vote on the boat line board.

The symbolic conclusion to the year came at the November meeting in Woods Hole, when SSA governors voted 5-0 to approve the construction of a $30.5 million ferry to replace the 50-year-old Islander, and again voted without dissent to give the vessel a name proposed by the late Ms. Roessel: the Island Home.

The unanimous appointment earlier this month of Mr. Lamson - with his emphasis on improving customer service, the reservation system and the cleanliness of the ferries and terminals - pointed to a boat line looking to get back to the basics.

Mr. Lamson's nuts-and-bolts approach comes at a good time for the SSA, which has experienced a drop in passenger and automobile traffic over the past several years. The SSA has compensated by raising fares in general and tourist rates in particular, leading some observers to question whether the boat line is creating its own downward spiral.

Earlier this year the SSA decided against running one of its more profitable vessels, the fast ferry Flying Cloud, for the coming winter on the Hyannis-Nantucket route. The privately owned Hy-Line will operate the only fast ferry for the season between Hyannis and the Island. Hy-Line now has proposed running a fast ferry between Oak Bluffs and Hyannis, linking two mostly unconnected markets and threatening to skim even more passengers from the boat line that is the lifeline to the two Islands.

The question of labor costs also continues to dog the boat line, coming against a backdrop of falling traffic. But the SSA did duck what could have been the most dangerous bullet - Nantucket's lively interest in carving the boat line in two.

Just how far the plan could have gone is open to dispute, given the state Legislature's hesitancy to reimmerse itself in boat line affairs following the long, painful debate over New Bedford's inclusion in the SSA. On the other hand, Mrs. Grossman had high-placed connections in the legislature.

But even the suggestion of secession distressed Vineyarders and boat line officials, who believed a split would only result in significantly higher fares and operational constraints.

Mrs. Grossman's health deteriorated this past spring and summer, however. When she died on July 22, the driving force behind the move faded, even though a private Nantucket-based committee continues to explore the issue.

Chief executive officer Mr. Raskin resigned from the job this year after a fractious two-year stint. Aside from his difficult relationship with Mrs. Grossman - a key ingredient in her interest in pulling Nantucket out of the boat line - Mr. Raskin repeatedly found himself at loggerheads with the rest of the board. He had difficulty advancing management initiatives such as barring passengers from ferry freight decks when vessels were under way and pursuing an in-float magazine to boost advertising revenues.

SSA governors, however, were ready to change or veto Mr. Raskin's proposals.

The plan to eliminate the practice of allowing drivers and passengers to remain inside their vehicles on the freight decks - a matter he saw as a safety and security issue within his management purview - drew a storm of protest from people on both Islands, especially Vineyard residents and officials. In a subsequent board vote, the late Ms. Roessel, often a supporter of Mr. Raskin, broke with him and joined other board members in reversing his plan.

Governors also objected to Mr. Raskin's plan to supplement basic boat line revenues with advertising, and to install security cameras on the ferries and at the terminals.

Mr. Raskin - who endured a four-to-five hour daily commute from his Andover home rather than move to the area - also cost himself with his relative lack of face time on the Islands, an especially sore point on Nantucket.

Well before the flap over the freight decks, Mr. Raskin and the board had been negotiating his respective level of freedom and power, along with an option for him to leave the job before the end of his contract.

To fill Mr. Raskin's shoes on an interim basis, the SSA turned - as it had done four times over the past two decades - to longtime treasurer Wayne Lamson.

But this time Mr. Lamson was interested in a permanent appointment to the top post. He immediately launched steps to improve customer service, especially the telephone reservation system. He also reached out to residents and officials on both Islands.

The governors embraced Mr. Lamson but also launched a national search for a new top staffer, changing the title from chief executive officer back to general manager. Ms. Roessel wanted to name a new general manager by the end of the year, before her three-year term expired. But others, including Nantucket's new governor, Flint Ranney, opted for a process that would extend into the following spring.

Ms. Roessel applied for reappointment as the Vineyard member on the boat line, although she doubted she had enough votes to win the appointment from the Dukes County Commission. At the November boat line meeting she announced that she would remain as a candidate but would not participate in scheduled interviews. Still, she seemed in good spirits at the meeting, citing a quote from the Lone Ranger: "My work here is done."

The following Saturday Islanders and SSA officials alike were shocked to learn that Ms. Roessel had been found dead outside her Vineyard Haven home. She was 53 and apparently in good health. At press time, the autopsy investigation had yet to be completed.

Ms. Roessel's unexpected death cast a pall over the interview process to name the next Vineyard governor, and interviews were postponed for a week.

Later the county commission voted to appoint Oak Bluffs businessman Marc Hanover as the new Vineyard governor.

Two days later, Mr. Hanover took the Vineyard seat at his inaugural SSA meeting, where there was also unanimous agreement to name Mr. Lamson the permanent general manager.

While SSA governors and the audience greeted the decision with applause, the move also drew criticism.

Arthur Flathers, a Vineyard Haven resident who closely follows SSA affairs, said the episode reinforces the perception held in some quarters that the Steamship Authority is an amateur operation.

But governors said they believed Mr. Lamson was the best choice.

"We're not dealing with an entry-level general manager here," Falmouth member Robert Marshall said, noting that Mr. Lamson has spent more time running the SSA as interim general manager than any recent permanent manager. Mr. Marshall said the SSA was fortunate to have its most experienced general manager as a candidate.