PRUDENCE ISLAND — In front of the Town Council and a crowd of about 150 inside a sweltering island community hall Saturday, Prudence Ferry owner Bruce Medley vowed he will continue ferry service beyond Dec. 1, after all.
“We are not discontinuing service. We are continuing until something else happens,” said Mr. Medley at a council meeting at the Prudence Island Improvement Association (PIA) Hall.
“Something else,” he said, would ideally be a “ferry district” operated by a public body that includes representation from island residents. The district would be similar to the Prudence Island Navigation Co., which used to operate the ferry, he said.
“I’d like to go back to that so you’d have the control,” Mr. Medley told island residents, adding later, “We will continue to provide service until a public entity takes over.”
The ferry owner also said he never notified the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) — which issues the license for the ferry — that he would stop service.
Mr. Medley notified passengers of his intention to continue service on the Prudence Ferry Facebook page several weeks ago, but this was the first time Portsmouth officials had received any official word from him since an April 23 e-mail that stated he would cease ferry operations after Dec. 1.
That letter, as well as prompting from the Prudence Island Planning Commission (PIPC), sent town officials scrambling to find a solution so that islanders wouldn’t be left high and dry without a boat.
Council members advertised for requests for information (RFI) — ideas from interested parties who may be interested in operating the ferry; the town had received four inquiries as of Saturday. The council also voted to spend $20,000 for engineering work on any technical issues regarding ferry service, including an evaluation of the dock on Prudence Island.
“We understand (this) is a basic and fundamental issue for residents and even visitors of Prudence Island,” Town Administrator John Klimm told island residents Saturday. “I lived on an island for a time, and I get why this is so important to you.”
Bill dropped ‘over politics’
Mr. Medley said he originally supported legislation introduced in February by Rep. Raymond Gallison Jr. (Dist. 69-Bristol and Portsmouth), to create a five-member “Prudence Island Ferry Authority” that would operate ferry services and set passenger rates.
The introduction of the bill took many Prudence residents by surprise. Islander Jim Oswalt told the council the measure had been filed “without any word” to Prudence residents.
According to Mr. Medley, his original Dec. 1 end date would have given the proposed ferry district six months to get up and running. “Forget the authority — that’s a bad word. It’s a district,” said Mr. Medley, adding that he wants to pass the ferry on “to the people of Prudence” and not to a big corporate authority that charges “$80 a car one way.”
The bill was ultimately pulled, the ferry owner charged, because of politics. Legislators had a bigger fish to fry, he said.
“It died with the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls,” Mr. Medley said.
Mr. Klimm said that wasn’t true; Rep. Gallison withdrew the bill because Prudence residents expressed concern over what the legislation would mean for ferry service. He said Rep. Gallison’s legislation was sound on principal.
“He was trying to put you in the driver’s seat,” he told islanders.
Mr. Medley said he wants to hold a meeting this summer with island residents and lawmakers — “not necessarily with the council” — regarding the formation of a ferry district. Until one is formed, however, Prudence Ferry plans to continue service “until we have something that’s a good deal for everyone,” he said.
Islanders speak out
Although many islanders who spoke Saturday said they were appreciative of Prudence Ferry’s operations, including its rates— Mr. Medley received applause at several points — some expressed concern that ferry service could still be disrupted.
“We were told flat out that this guy’s closing his doors and now he says he’s not. I don’t like living my life that way,” said Matt Rossi, who lives on the north end of the island. “Don’t take (what Mr. Medley said) as gospel. You’ve seen enough to know that his mind could change at any time.”
Mr. Rossi also urged the council to find land on Portsmouth proper in case a ferry terminal and parking spaces are needed in the future. Mr. Klimm, however, said Prudence residents have made it clear that they prefer the Bristol landing.
Mr. Oswalt said the council deserves credit for devoting so much time and money to the ferry situation. He urged the panel to continue on its course, however, because it’s still unclear whether ferry service will continue uninterrupted.
“The problem here is one of reliability and predictability,” he said. “I would be very cautious. I’m glad to hear we’re going to have ferry service on Dec. 2. But are we going to have it Dec. 3?”
Council President James Seveney said the town will continue analyzing the situation. Although things can always change, he said, “I feel a little bit more comfortable now. The clock is not ticking as loudly as it was an hour ago.”
While Portsmouth officials were busy trying to find a solution on their end, the Town of Bristol recently purchased from Mr. Medley the ferry dock and parking lot on Thames Street in that town for $800,000.
Halsey Herreshoff, vice chairman of the Bristol Town Council, said the purchase was a “defensive” move. “We didn’t want someone coming in from New York buying a bunch of condos and kicking the ferry out,” said Mr. Herreshoff.
Bristol will own the parking lot with its 65 to 70 spots, although lease agreements for 25 of those spots between Prudence residents and Mr. Medley will be honored through the terms of the contract.
Some island residents have expressed confusion over the parking situation, which will require a fee for overnight parking. Janet Brown said she appreciates what Bristol has done to provide additional day parking, but long-term parking is inadequate.
“I feel like we’ve been systematically pushed out of Bristol,” she said, urging Bristol officials to continue to study the parking issue.
Mr. Herreshoff said Bristol has no intention of making significant changes to the parking in that town. “We don’t intend to change the rates next year, he said, which drew applause from the crowd.
Mr. Herreshoff, whose own family has been involved in ferrying residents to and from Prudence in the past, offered his own two cents to the question of whom should operate the ferry in the future.
“There’s been a lot of talk about Bristol running a ferry and Portsmouth running the ferry … I for one find that troubling and hard to understand,” said Mr. Herreshoff, whose grandfather, Capt. Halsey Chase, operated the Harvest as a ferry between Bristol and Prudence beginning in 1904. “Darned if I think the government should run things. Look at the federal government, look at the state government.”
A better bet, he said, would be to find another private entity — “another Capt. Chase, Luther Blount or Bruce Medley.”