Fast Link to Hyannis Wins Public Backing

Steamship Authority Governors Poised to Decide on Hy-Line Proposal; Year-Round Service Planned

By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer

The public likes the idea of a year-round fast ferry running between Hyannis and Oak Bluffs. Now the question is whether the Steamship Authority will.

Most of the comments made at two public hearings held in Oak Bluffs and Hyannis favored the proposal by Hy-Line Cruises to run a 149-passenger catamaran between the two ports. The boat line may decide as soon as next Thursday's meeting in Woods Hole whether to allow the Hyannis-based company to run the service.

"I think it will be a wonderful thing," Renee Balter, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association, said at a public hearing Monday at the Oak Bluffs School.

"It will be a boon on many fronts," said Arthur Flathers, a Vineyard Haven resident who closely follows boat line affairs.

At the Hyannis hearing, held Tuesday at the SSA terminal, Hyannis resident Allen Goddard backed the proposal. "It will enhance the economic revitalization of Hyannis," he said.

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Hy-Line also has drawn a phalanx of written support from federal and state legislators, educators, health care providers and business associations.

They include U.S. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, Cong. William Delahunt, state Sens. Robert O'Leary and Therese Murray, Cape Cod Community College president Kathleen Schatzberg, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Margaret Reagan, Island Health Inc. executive director Cynthia Mitchell, the Cape Cod and Hyannis chambers of commerce, as well as the Oak Bluffs Association.

As of Wednesday, only three people had raised questions at the hearings about the proposal.

One is William Campbell, spokesman for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, which represents unlicensed employees at the boat line.

"If this really, truly looks like a necessity or a convenience to the public, we [the SSA] should provide it," Mr. Campbell said.

The ball is now in the hands of SSA senior managers, who are analyzing Hy-Line's plan and its potential impact on the state-chartered boat line. The staff will forward a recommendation to the SSA board of governors, which is tentatively scheduled to vote on the plan at its meeting Thursday at the Candle House in Woods Hole. The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m.

SSA general counsel Steven Sayers has raised the possibility that staff will not have a recommendation ready by Thursday. In that case, boat line governors will vote on the proposal at their April meeting.

If the board votes to permit the service either this or next month, Hy-Line plans to start the service around Memorial Day. Company co-owner Murray Scudder said the progress of renovations on the vessel intended for the service, the Grey Lady II, will play a larger role in the start of the service than the timing of a favorable SSA vote.

Hy-Line operated the Grey Lady II year-round on the Hyannis-Nantucket route for five years, and recently brought the ferry back to the East Coast after leasing the boat to a California operator.

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The trip between the ports would take about 55 minutes.

Hy-Line is proposing a one-way rate of $29 for passengers aged 13 and older, with a round trip fare of $52. A ferry embarkation fee of 50 cents per departure would be added.

The company also is planning a set of reduced rates. Children between five and 12 years of age would pay $23 one-way and $39 for a round trip. A commuter book containing 10 round trip tickets would be available for $234. School group rates would be $10 per person, with youth group rates at $11 per person (the latter would include the embarkation fee.)

Hy-Line has downplayed the potential impact of the new service on the Steamship Authority, which operates no service on the route. The company argues that the service represents the tapping of Vineyard and Mid-Cape markets that now rarely travel between the Cape and the Island.

Hy-Line has said that its passenger traffic has been declining for the five years on the route. The company anticipates that providing faster service to the Island will attract more riders to the service.

To grant Hy-Line a license for the operation, the SSA must determine whether the service is a public necessity and a public convenience.

Mr. Sayers said at Monday's hearing that the service would give the Boston market a more convenient way to get to the Vineyard via Hyannis rather than using SSA ferries out of Woods Hole.

Hy-Line has proposed running five round trips on the route from May through Jan. 1, with run four round trips from Jan. 2 through April 30.

Hy-Line owners say they plan to continue to operate a traditional ferry between Hyannis and Oak Bluffs in addition to the fast ferry. The ferry Brant Point, takes about an hour and a half to make the trip. Hy-Line also has proposed using the Brant Point to increase seasonal service between the Vineyard and Nantucket, but that plan has not yet come before the boat line for consideration.

Mrs. Balter, whose association represents businesses in Oak Bluffs, said the proposed fast-ferry service represented a "tremendous economic opportunity" for the town.

Bob Moore, director of the charter school in West Tisbury, supported the fast ferry, saying it would open up opportunities for students to use Cape Cod Community College, and for the school to take advantage of professional development courses in Barnstable, Yarmouth and Dennis.

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Even Jim Tietje, the owner of Patriot Party Boats, who operates a year-round 40-passenger boat between Falmouth harbor and Oak Bluffs, spoke in favor of the Hy-Line plan.

"If you run this service, more people will be aware of my service," he said.

Scarce parking around the Oak Bluffs harbor surfaced as an issue.

Mr. Scudder said company discussions are under way with town officials to address the parking problem. Mrs. Balter said the town already was planning to operate a park and ride lot at the Oak Bluffs School during the summer.

SSA employee Steve Ames of Hyannis, who lives near the Hy-Line terminal, recommended that the boat line allow Hy-Line to run the service for two years and then take over the route.

Mr. Sayers said the SSA will continue to accept comments on the proposal until the end of the day today. People may call 508-548-5011, extension 301.

At the Monday hearing, Martin Reilly, director of business development for Hy-Line, said despite the fact that the company has operated a route between Oak Bluffs and Hyannis for 34 years, its image is still defined more in terms of Nantucket service.

"We want to be more synonymous with Martha's Vineyard," he said.