Long Island Ferry Concern Eyes Martha's Vineyard for Possible New Route

By James Kinsella
Gazette Senior Writer

Owners of a Montauk, N.Y., ferry company have launched a federal lawsuit that could open the way for car ferry and fast ferry service between Long Island and Martha's Vineyard.

In the lawsuit, entities with ownership interests in the Viking Fleet want to strike down a ban by the town of East Hampton against car ferries and fast ferries operating out of Montauk harbor.

The plaintiffs argue that the ban violates the constitution by effectively restraining interstate travel and commerce. They also argue that the fast ferry ban regulates business activity and is not a legitimate exercise of East Hampton's zoning powers.

The plaintiffs include Francarl Realty Corp., which owns the terminal at Montauk from which the Viking ferries operate.

At present, a Viking passenger ferry visits Oak Bluffs once or twice a summer, according to Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander. The ferry uses Terry McCarthy's private dock in the inner harbor, the same dock used by the Hyannis-based Hy-Line ferry company.

Oak Bluffs officials yesterday expressed concerns about increased ferry service to their town and the Vineyard in general. Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, said he believes a new ferry operation would qualify as a development of regional impact that would be reviewed by the commission.

"Everyone wants to run a ferry," Mr. Alexander said yesterday. "It's unbelievable."

Because the service would originate from outside Massachusetts, the Steamship Authority would have no say in its approval, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said yesterday.

The lawsuit, filed last month in United States District Court in New York city, specifically identifies the Vineyard as one of Viking's out-of-state destinations.

The complaint does not say whether Viking plans to run car ferries or fast ferries to the Vineyard. Viking officials yesterday were unavailable to comment on what ferry service the company would seek to offer if the court knocks down the East Hampton ban. The complaint also does not identify a particular Vineyard port for Viking service.

The plaintiffs do state that they "are ready, willing, and able to, and desire and intend to, operate one or more existing or additional ferries, each of which can or will be able to carry motor vehicles and their passengers . . . . between East Hampton and other ports and places out of New York state, including but not limited to Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts."

In 1997, the East Hampton town board adopted a local law to forbid the siting of a vehicle ferry terminal anywhere in that town. The local law also banned dockage for fast ferries in East Hampton.

A section states the law was enacted in response to "very large casinos established on the Connecticut mainland near New London, Conn." The reference is to the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos operated by Indian tribes in eastern Connecticut.

"The ferry law," the complaint states, "has forced and continues to force substantial interstate commerce and travel between East Hampton and other ports and places outside New York state to be undertaken through longer, more time-consuming, and expensive routes."

The complaint continues:

"The vehicle ferry ban and fast ferry ban have caused and continue to cause Viking plaintiffs and Francarl to suffer lost business opportunities and lost profits . . . . The vehicle ferry and fast ferry ban impose direct competitive and financial harm on the Viking plaintiffs and Francarl."

The complaint asks the court to nullify the bans, enjoin East Hampton from enforcing the bans and award Viking and Francarl damages and attorneys' fees and costs.

Gregory Coogan, chairman of the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen, said this week that he would have concerns about any increased ferry service to the town.

"We're not anxiously soliciting ferries at the moment," Mr. Coogan said. "We seem to have our fair share."

Earlier this month, the Oak Bluffs selectmen signed off on a proposal by Hy-Line to operate a year-round fast ferry between Hyannis and Oak Bluffs. Patriot Party Boats already operates a year-round service between Falmouth and Oak Bluffs.

This week, the Steamship Authority resumed seasonal vehicle and passenger ferry service to Oak Bluffs from Woods Hole. The Island Queen is scheduled to resume seasonal service from Falmouth to Oak Bluffs later this month. Vineyard Fast Ferry, which operates seasonally between Quonset Point, R.I., and Oak Bluffs, also is scheduled to resume service later this month.

"I would hope that somebody would come to us" from Viking, as have other ferry companies, Mr. Coogan said. "They're already in the planning process. That concerns me."

Selectman Kerry Scott questioned whether the Vineyard would want to take a chance on doing anything that would hurt the Steamship Authority.

Also, Ms. Scott said, "We have to look long and hard at our carrying capacity. What's the Vineyard's carrying capacity? Another car ferry? I don't think so." A passenger-only ferry might be another story, she said.

Ferry service from Long Island could be a good thing, Ms. Scott said. But, alluding to the tale of the goose and her golden egg, she said the Vineyard should handle the question very carefully.

"We don't have any regulatory authority over them," said Vineyard SSA governor Marc Hanover, about the Viking operation.

He questioned whether the New York and Long Island metropolitan market would support the high fares he said would be needed to move passengers or vehicles from Long Island to the Vineyard, let alone the extended hours that the trip would involve.

Still, competition is competition. If SSA ridership was increasing, Mr. Hanover said, he would be less concerned about a new ferry service. But a six per cent decline in ridership in each of the past two years has forced the boat line to look closely at even small increases in competition, including the Pied Piper proposal to operate a ferry with 40 or fewer passengers between Falmouth and Vineyard Haven.

Mr. Lamson said it is possible that the Steamship Authority could be open to leasing the use of one of its Vineyard vehicle docks to Viking. "Nothing like that has been discussed," he said.

"Fast ferries are the wave of the future," Charlie Donadio Jr., the owner of Vineyard Fast Ferry, said yesterday. "Obviously, they'd have some ridership from there."