Updated April 21
The structural majority afforded the Vineyard and Nantucket through the Steamship Authority’s enabling act could come to an end if a bill sponsored by State Senator Susan Moran, D-Falmouth, is voted into law.
Moran told The Times Wednesday the bill aims to provide “parity” between the port communities.
“My bill really looks at some parity between the island communities and the mainland communities so that no town really feels disenfranchised…,” Moran said.
Moran’s legislation would essentially grant filibuster or stalemate power to the three minority ports of Barnstable, Falmouth, and New Bedford, should they vote against something in unison. Presently, the combined vote of the Vineyard and Nantucket constitutes a supermajority.
On Wednesday State Senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro and State Representative Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth came out against the bill and vowed to kill it.
“This bill would allow one Steamship Authority member to control the fate of the lifeline to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while placing Island communities in the precarious position to be responsible for future operating deficits,” they wrote in a joint statement. “Islanders should chart the course when it comes to their lifeline to the mainland. We are open to a thoughtful and collaborative conversation about the Steamship Authority, but after hearing from our constituents, we have deeply held concerns about this approach and cannot support it. Fortunately, there is a long tradition of deferring to the lawmakers who represent the islands on such matters. Legislation affecting Islanders cannot advance without our support, and thus this bill will not pass.”
The prospect of a weakened position for the two islands came to the fore Tuesday morning at the ferry line’s monthly board meeting, when the long-debated subject of freight service to New Bedford arose. SSA special counsel Steve Sayers gave the board a progress report on the long-range transportation task force and Woods Hole–Falmouth noise and traffic mitigation working group—the former meant to explore barging rubbish off the Vineyard, the latter seeking ways to mitigate truck impacts to the community.
While plenty of discussion was devoted to the feasibility of rubbish and freight service to New Bedford, the elephant in the room was Moran’s bill, which is expected to be presented to Falmouth residents on Thursday.
Woods Hole residents have long railed against the noise and congestion brought on by trucks traveling down Woods Hole Road to the SSA terminal. Rerouting those trucks to New Bedford is a popular idea in Woods Hole. Barnstable board member Robert Jones said while there are many impediments, freight service to New Bedford may well be on the horizon for the SSA, but he didn’t think an accord on the subject could ever be reached by “filing legislation to change the vote.” Jones couldn’t imagine the islands wanted to cede their voting power.
“I think legislation like that only serves to tear us apart,” he said. “That’s just not going to serve any good purpose except for perhaps to alienate neighbors.”
Board chair Kathryn Wilson, who represents Falmouth, didn’t speak to Moran’s bill specifically during debate, but said, “I think the status quo is not the way to continue on. I mean speaking from Falmouth’s standpoint, status quo is not satisfactory.”
When asked by The Times at the end of the meeting if she supported Moran’s bill, Wilson said, “I just learned about it yesterday, and I haven’t reviewed it. I’m interested, but I just don’t know yet.”
Pressed if she supported the concept of minority ports having veto power, she said, “I’m not sure. I mean, if collectively they would have power — honestly … I just don’t know. It seems like we ought to have at least one Island — I don’t know is the honest answer.”
Sayers also told the board the Falmouth transportation management committee, a town body, will consider a request to close Cowdry Road to trucks from 10 pm to 6 am, a move that would halt truck traffic to the terminal in Woods Hole. Sayers said that Woods Hole resident Nathaniel Trumbull proposed the restriction. Sayers said such a restriction would be “very disruptive to our operations,” and hoped other ways of mitigating truck impacts could be worked out with the community.
Vineyard board member Jim Malkin criticized what he understood to be Falmouth transportation management committee chair Ed DeWitt’s impetus for forming his committee. “What really struck me was he introduced the formation of the transportation committee by saying we were formed in response to complaints and concerns raised by Woods Hole residents,” Malkin said. “Now it doesn’t seem to me that … if you’re forming a group to deal with concerns, you already prejudiced where you’re going with that group’s activities.”
Malkin also took issue with how he perceived Falmouth was ignoring the Vineyard’s contribution to its economy. In doing so, he recounted a recent trip he took to Falmouth, where he patronized a number of businesses. “What I don’t hear in this discussion about the impact on Falmouth is the benefits that Islanders bring to the commercial and business and employment areas in Falmouth, which are real,” he said.
SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll later said Robert Davis, general manager of the ferry line, will attend the Falmouth transportation management committee meeting on Thursday.
Moran weighs in
In an interview with The Times Wednesday morning Moran, who is a member of the legislature’s joint committee on transportation, said even if the power to do so is there, it’s not in the other port communities’ interests, Falmouth especially, to hold the islands hostage through blocked votes.
“Well it’s not in the economic interest of the towns,” she said. “I mean certainly, taking Falmouth for example—Falmouth has an economic benefit from the Steamship commuting and tourism.”
Moran said her legislation “really prevents two districts from having unilateral say over Steamship Authority matters. It instead requires a vote of at least three districts to pass any measure. And so neither the Islands, nor the mainland, could unilaterally agree on a measure without reaching a compromise with the other. In fact it really kind of promotes compromise and conversation.”
Moran said she didn’t think the lifeline to the islands would be jeopardized by the legislation, however she believes the language of the enabling act is out of tune with growth in the region and “bursting at the seams” traffic.
“The status quo is clearly not working for towns with the smaller voting power,” she said. “And it has been a divisive relationship for a number of years and this would bring more parity between the mainland communities and the island communities. Right now the current system does not promote communication and parity. This legislation would do that.”
Asked if a relatively small group of Woods Hole residents were the impetus for the legislation or if it stems from something larger, Moran said both were at play. Among other things she pointed to the impending Cape Cod Canal Bridge replacements.
“So certainly individuals and their concerns are very important, but this bill was born out of a transportation future that is coming with the replacement of the bridges and the board has correctly, I think, long discussed the role of New Bedford…”
She added possibilities of a revived New Bedford SSA port could not only mean economic gains for that city but lowered costs for the Steamship Authority.
“If we allow ourselves to look at new possibilities and sort of take another road than the road we’re on, I think we may have more success in having a brighter future for the community and the Steamship both,” she said.
Asked if the heavier obligation the islands have to cover SSA deficits would be reapportioned along with the weight of votes, Moran said no for now.
“This doesn’t change that obligation,” she said. “Certainly that can be part of the discussion in the committee going forward.”
Dukes County Commissioner Keith Chatinover found Moran’s bill unpalatable.
“I couldn’t be more opposed,” he said. “The SSA is for the islands and any attempt to remove our voting majority threatens to take decisions about our lifeline out of our hands. It simply cannot happen.”
Nantucket town manager Libby Gibson was equally blunt, “We would vehemently object to that bill,” she said.
Robert Ranney, Nantucket’s board member expressed similar sentiment.
“This is outrageous,” he said Wednesday, “that a state senator who doesn’t even represent either the Vineyard or Nantucket could file something against our best interests.”
Updated with comments from Sen. Moran, a statement from Sen. Cyr and Rep. Fernandes, and comments from other officials.