Portsmouth asked to take stand on Prudence ferry service
In one corner there’s the current operator since the mid-1980s, Prudence Ferry, owned by Bruce Medley. In the other corner there’s A&R Marine, a newcomer that recently filed an application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity with the R.I. Public Utilities Commission’s Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (PUC).
And in the middle is the Town Council, which pondered long and hard Tuesday night over whether it should endorse one applicant over another to the PUC.
In the end, members voted unanimously to direct the council-appointed Prudence Island Planning Commission (PIPC) to vote on its preferred ferry operator and to provide a reason for its choice. Town Planner Gary Crosby, Town Administrator John Klimm and Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin will present PIPC’s vote and other information at A&R Marine’s Oct. 29 hearing before the PUC.
Mr. Medley was not at the meeting. Contacted Wednesday, the ferry owner said he would have attended had he known the nature of the discussion beforehand. The council agenda for Tuesday listed "Prudence Island Ferry Update" under "Old Business."
“None of this was on the agenda, so we will be filing a open meetings complaint against them," Mr. Medley said.
A&R Marine, which would operate as Prudence and Bay Islands Transport, is comprised of two Prudence Island residents, Ethan and Patricia Rossi; and two Richmond residents, Stephen and Daniel Antaya. Besides needing to provide that it’s fit, willing and able to provide ferry service and that such a service is needed, A&R Marine also must show the PUC that the service provided by Mr. Medley is inadequate or would be in the future.
Mr. Crosby recommended the town make a case against Prudence Ferry to the PUC. He referred back to the day last May, when Mr. Medley sent out an e-mail stating he would cease services Dec. 1, 2013. (Mr. Medly later retracted the statement when legislation to create a ferry authority that would have exclusive rights to operate the service failed.)
“He’s publicly stated that he plans on moving the mainland terminal from Bristol to Fall River,” added Mr. Crosby, noting that the plan wouldn’t be viable to Portsmouth residents. “We can make the case that the service is inadequate based on those two things alone.”
Prudence Ferry could easily get its permit renewed, Mr. Crosby said. “If we don’t decide to step in in a forceful way, that may happen,” he said.
Concerns over continuity of service
Jim Oswalt, who owns a home on Prudence, agreed. Many islanders are worried that ferry service could be disrupted at any time under Mr. Medley’s reign, he said.
“This can really be summed up in one word: uncertainty,” said Mr. Oswalt, pointing out that Mr. Medley initially told both the PUC and Portsmouth that he was leaving the ferry business. “He then comes back at the meeting on Prudence Island and gets up and says, ‘I’m just kidding.’ That’s essentially what happened. He’s playing us all. You’ve got the word of a person who’s proven himself to switch when he doesn’t get his way.”
Pat Rossi, an islander who acknowledged her family’s ties with A&R Marine, said the ferry is not just an issue for Prudence residents.
“You also use this service. Your trash comes back and forth. Your students come back and forth,” said Ms. Rossi. “You guys pay one of the highest freight bills and you are limited. You really do have a vested interest.”
Stephen Antaya, president of A&R Marine, said islanders have complained about the lack of bathrooms on the Prudence Ferry vessel. A&R has a purchase-and-sales agreement for a boat that will have bathrooms, heat and will be handicapped-accessible, he said.
A&R is also prepared to build, at its expense, a new ferry terminal on town-owned property just north of Mr. Medley’s terminal on Prudence Island. The ferry landing in Bristol was sold by Mr. Medley earlier this year to the Town of Bristol, which has a rental agreement with him through June 2014, at $1 for the year. Mr. Crosby said A&R has been talking to Bristol about leasing that property in the future.
Should town take position?
Several council members, however, said they were uncomfortable with officially endorsing A&R over Prudence Ferry. Council President James Seveney questioned whether the town can make the case that Mr. Medley’s service is inadequate.
“Are we getting into the business of judging ferries now?” Mr. Seveney asked.
Council member Keith Hamilton also said the town shouldn’t be selecting one service over another. “The natural marketplace should take care of itself,” he said.
Mr. Oswalt, however, pleaded with the council to take a stand. “You can’t be Switzerland here,” he said. “If you stay neutral, you’re effectively voting for the present ferry operator.”
Mr. Seveney said it would be better if the town made its preference known to the PUC with “Prudence Island standing behind us.”
Harry Sterling, chairman of PIPC, agreed to have his group meet to take a vote on the matter and report back to the council. Mr. Klimm said he would most likely attend the PIPC meeting, which will be held on the island. The council expects to take up the matter again at its next meeting Oct. 28, the day before A&R Marine’s hearing before the PUC.
On Wednesday, Mr. Medley responded to several issues raised Tuesday night. First off, the only reason he originally planned to stop service Dec. 1 was because he believed the ferry authority legislation would be approved, he said.
"When I found out it did not fly two days before the Fourth of July, I turned around and said ... I’m going to continue until the future," he said. "We have no intentions of quitting. In fact we just published our winter schedule through April.”
Prudence Ferry had briefly talked about moving the terminal from Bristol to Fall River because of the available parking, he said, but it became clear that people wanted the ferry landing to stay in Bristol.
Too much has been made of his decision to sell the Thames Street landing to the Town of Bristol, Mr. Medley said. “We sold the dock in Bristol simply to satisfy the needs of one of the stockholders," he said.
As for the future, Mr. Medley wants to eventually turn his operation over to a longtime Prudence Ferry employee whom he said is already running the company. "Eric Leite, who has been with the company for 20 years, wants to lease-purchase the company," said Mr. Medley. By not selling the company outright, he said, Prudence Ferry would be able to retain its workers.
Mr. Medley also said he doesn't believe the town should play favorites when it comes to ferry service. “I would be very disappointed if the Portsmouth Town Council, after all these years, came out and supported (A&R Marine)” said Mr. Medley, claiming that the corporation doesn’t even exist. “They have no boat."
The council should also be wary of any vote taken by the PIPC, he said. “The planning commission does not necessarily represent the Prudence Island community," Mr. Medley said.
Prudence Ferry is currently before Superior Court, arguing that it should be grandfathered in for the certificate of public convenience and necessity, he said.
He's confident that Prudence Ferry will remain the sole provider of ferry service to the island.
“In my experience with the division and the whole ferry service, they have never, ever allowed a same kind of service against a utility that’s already there and established," he said. "If they approve (A&R Marine's application), this is historic."