State transportation official backs SSA bill
Vineyard SSA member cites union pressure behind surprise legislation
Although prospects for legislation that would place the Steamship Authority under the authority of the state's Executive Office of Transportation are unclear, the state official who heads the state office has signaled his support. The bill, a surprise to SSA leaders and Island officials, was heard May 17 by members of the state legislature's joint committee on transportation.
The bill (H 3681) would add the secretary of transportation or a designee to the five-person authority membership and a seven-member port council. The SSA, and Vineyard leaders at the county and town level, as well as Nantucket officials, testified in opposition to the bill.
John Lamontagne, a spokesman for Secretary of Transportation Bernard Cohen, said yesterday that the secretary backs the legislation. "Secretary Cohen supports the work of the Steamship Authority and the excellent services they provide," Mr. Lamontagne wrote in an e-mail to The Times. "Support of Chairman Wagner's bill is not a reflection on the Steamship Authority in any way, as the board there has been fiscally responsible in their work. Rather, Secretary Cohen supports the Chairman's overall effort to have a more centralized transportation system throughout the state."
The bill, entitled "An Act Relative to Coordinating Intermodal Assets in the Commonwealth," is sponsored by Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee. It is a refile of a bill from Sen. Steven Baddour (D-Methuen) that was sent to study during the 2005-2006 session. It would change the weighted vote structure, reducing Martha Vineyard and Nantucket's votes to 30 percent each from 35 percent and giving 10 percent to the secretary. Votes from Barnstable, Falmouth and New Bedford would stay the same at 10 percent each. Messrs. Wagner and Baddour are the co-chairmen of the joint transportation committee. Rep. Matt Patrick (D-Falmouth) is a co-sponsor of the bill with Wagner. Rep. Patrick told the committee that the islands' control would not be diluted, because they would maintain a super-majority on the board.
In prepared testimony before the joint committee, William J. Campbell, a representative for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, which has been without a contract and at odds with the SSA for four years, warns that the SSA "faces an uncertain fiscal future that may compromise the safety of those who rely on it every day." Mr. Campbell also argues that the legislation, which SSA officials believe is a union-backed move to increase its leverage in contract talks with the boatline, is "aimed at making the SSA a thriving, sustainable authority, while preventing a recurring history of failure and financial instability."
Mr. Campbell writes that the SSA requires increased oversight from the state's transportation agency to help it deal with declining ridership and rising rates.
Marc Hanover, the Vineyard member, dismissed the union leader's argument as without foundation. "Either he is grossly misinformed or he is a liar," the Vineyard member said. "Campbell said the Island Home won't fit in the slips in the Vineyard and Woods Hole. Lie. He said the price went up from $22 million to $32 million. Lie. He said the Island Home uses more fuel than Islander. Lie. He said the crews have had no special training since 9/11. Lie."
Wayne Lamson, the boatline's general manager, said he had been disappointed with Mr. Campbell's testimony as well. He described it as filled with inaccuracies, and he said that Mr. Campbell's testimony made it clear that the bill was a union bill. "It's their language, their bill," the GM said.
Mr. Hanover took issue with Mr. Campbell's suggestion that the boatline has a history of "failure and financial instability." Mr. Hanover pointed to the record of decades of operation in which the boatline has not required the taxpayers of the islands, Barnstable, and Falmouth to cover operating deficits, as the SSA enabling legislation allows the boatline to do. "The Steamship Authority has never been in better shape," the Vineyard member said.
Opponents of the change, including area politicians and other state lawmakers, say the proposal is a union-backed effort to get around stalled contract negotiations.
"We would like to run it the way it's been run," Tom Pachico, a Tisbury selectman, told the committee members at the May 17 hearing. And Rep. Eric Turkington (D-Falmouth) said putting gubernatorial appointees on the board and port council won't necessarily lead to a more efficient transportation system. "The Big Dig is an example of that, the MBTA is an example of that," he said.
SSA rates have risen eight times in the last seven years, bill supporters noted. Currently, it costs $7 each way from Martha's Vineyard and Woods Hole, and $100 for a round trip with a car. From Nantucket to Hyannis, the cost is $15 each way, with $300 for a car.
The numbers prompted Rep. Baddour to exclaim in disbelief. When bill opponents invited him to tour the area, Mr. Baddour said he has not visited and likely won't any time in the near future. "I can't afford it," he said.