It's Prudence Island Ferry Inc., for now
Unless another ferry service steps in, Prudence Island Ferry Inc., will remain the sole public transportation from Prudence Island to the Bristoi dock, now and in the future.
Following Prudence Island Ferry Inc.'s owner Bruce Medley's announcement that he would cease operations by Dec. 1, the Town of Portsmouth solicited a request for information, asking if other ferry businesses would be willing to operate that service for the 350 or so residents, and the swells of summer tourists.
To date, Town Planner Gary Crosby said he has received notice from four companies: A&R Marine, The Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, HMS Global Maritime Inc. as HMS Ferries, and Interstate Navigation, which runs the ferry to Block Island.
However, no company has begun the filing process for an application with the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers for a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN), said Terry Mercer, an associate administrator at the division.
"No one has, and I'm not sure anyone will," Mr. Mercer said. "I've heard suggestions either way."
In order for another ferry to provide service along the same Bristol-Prudence Island route, it would have to apply for a CPCN. That ferry would have to prove that it was fit, willing and able to provide that service, as well as demonstrate a public need for that service, said Mr. Mercer. If there is currently a ferry service in operation, the new application would have to prove that the current service is inadequate, or would be inadequate in the future.
"While Mr. Medley does hold a certificate to operate a ferry service to Prudence Island from Bristol, there is no prohibition if another ferry wanted to apply for a certificate (for the same route)," Mr. Mercer said. "There is a mechanism in place that would allow for the application."
The application would go before a hearing board, which would either approve or deny the request. As the current provider, Mr. Medley would be able to intervene.
"An argument could be made that by allowing two carriers, neither would survive," Mr. Mercer said. "And there goes the lifeline."
Prudence Island Ferry Inc., has been designated as a lifeline carrier, meaning under no circumstances would the company be able to cease operations. It is the only way for residents and visitors to the island to get to the mainland.
"We are continuing service until whenever," Mr. Medley said. "We have no intention of stopping, unless the legislation passes."
Mr. Medley explained his reasoning for his cease-operations announcement was due to legislation proposed by State Rep. Ray Gallison this past spring, which would have created a Prudence Island Ferry Authority. The Authority would have exclusive rights to operate a ferry service to and from the island, with Bristol as the mainland dock. It would be comprised of three Portsmouth residents, and two Bristol residents, all elected by their respective town councils. The Authority would be given power to set ferry rates, as well as solicit bids for ferry services.
That process would give local power over ferry services, and remove oversight by the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers.
However, Rep. Gallison rescinded the bill, he had stated, to focus on the Sakonnet River Bridge toll issue. At that time, Mr. Medley rescinded his statement, claiming he would continue providing service to the island.
"I'm hopeful we can get an Authority established next year," said Mr. Medley.
In the meantime, the Town of Portsmouth is not resting on its laurels. With Mr. Medley's yo-yo decision to operate, Mr. Crosby is moving forward with a plan that would ensure service to the island would not stop.
"We want to make sure we have options," he said. "It's difficult for us to understand what (Mr. Medley's) intentions are, so we're doing what we can to keep our options open."
Aside from soliciting interest in ferry services, Mr. Crosby has been meeting with the town's on-call engineer to survey town-owned property that is adjacent to Mr. Medley's ferry dock on Prudence Island. The proposal would be to build a town-owned ferry terminal.
"It's a very preliminary discussion," Mr. Crosby said. "The concern of the Town of Portsmouth is that we establish a reliable, long-term solution to the problem."
Mr. Medley is currently fighting a legal battle at the Supreme Court against the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. He's arguing that as a long-standing ferry service provider, he should not have to renew his CPCN - a $100 fee that is required yearly. He was fined $1,500 in May for failure to file for his renewal in 2012 in a timely manner, Mr. Mercer said.