Prudence Ferry captain responds to concerns
Longtime ferry employee Eric Leite's appearance came one day before the R.I. Public Utilities Commission’s Division of Public Utilities and Carriers' (PUC) hearing today on A&R Marine's application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN), which would permit the company to run a ferry from Prudence Island to Bristol. That service has been offered exclusively by Prudence Island Ferry Inc., owned by Bruce Medley, since the mid-'80s.
At Monday's council meeting, Mr. Leite addressed comments made in a letter from the Prudence Island Planning Commission (PIPC), an advisory group that was charged by the council to come up with a list of suggestions on ferry service standards for Prudence Island. The letter was included in the town's testimony before the PUC Tuesday.
The biggest concern raised in the PIPC letter was the reliability of service. An April 23 e-mail from Mr. Medley to Town Administrator John Klimm, in which the ferry operator stated he would cease service on Dec. 1, 2013 "caused much anxiety and concern," the letter stated.
Mr. Medley has previously said the only reason he originally planned to stop service Dec. 1 was because he believed that legislation to create a ferry authority would be approved. After the bill died, he withdrew his intention to stop service, he said.
Town Council member Keith Hamilton told Mr. Leite Monday that most islanders don't have a problem with the Prudence Ferry crew. “They have a problem with the owner of the boat," he said. “I want to make sure we maintain for Prudence Island a consistent service that is always there.” (Mr. Medley did not attend Monday's meeting.)
Mr. Leite said the authority bill was misunderstood by many people. A ferry authority, he said, "would have ensured the longevity of the company. It was nothing about raising the rates. It really was in everyone’s best interests.”
As far as reliability of service, Mr. Leite said the ferry has missed an average of only about three runs each year, and only in the winter due to poor weather conditions. “We take New Year’s Day and Christmas Day off, and that’s it. We’re a very reliable service," he said.
No Thanksgiving runs this year
As for islanders' desire for a morning and afternoon ferry run on Thanksgiving Day, as suggested in the PIPC letter, Mr. Leite said that's always depended on the demand from passengers. The ferry has made Thanksgiving runs in the past, but recently stopped because passengers didn't seem to care, he said. Although it's too late to change plans for this year, he said, the ferry company will consider adding Thanksgiving runs next year.
The PIPC also asked for consistent and thorough snow removal from the docks, including the parking lots and ramps.
“One has to understand that it’s not like plowing yourself out of your driveway," said Mr. Leite, noting that the docks are constantly bombarded by icy salt spray. “We do our best, and safety is our number-one concern.”
In addition, the PIPC asked for a restroom on board the ferry in addition to the portable toilet at the Bristol dock.
Mr. Leite said there already is a restroom on the boat. “They just have to ask a crew member for the key," he said. The key was necessitated, he said, because some passengers would "trash" the bathroom, particularly the Friday-night crowds who were leaving the bars.
The PIPC also asked for adequately heated cabins. The crew does its best to keep things warm with three portable heaters, Mr. Leite said, but it's often difficult during the colder winter months.
“One must consider the fact that this is a steel room," he said, adding that the doors are opened and shut constantly.
The PIPC suggested the ferry allow vehicle reservations to be made online in addition to by telephone. Mr. Leite said that in the past, the PUC didn't want Prudence Ferry to take money in advance and then still charge passengers if they didn't show up.
"The system is antiquated but it works. There’s no penalty if someone doesn’t show up," said Mr. Leite, adding that the company could consider online payments in the future.
As for an annual meeting with islanders to discuss service and schedules, as suggested by the PIPC, Mr. Leite said that wouldn't be a problem.
Presents petition from passengers
Mr. Leite also presented the council a petition he said was signed by about 250 Prudence Ferry passengers who want the current service to continue.
The petition contained brief comments left by some signers. "I have been taking the ferry for years," said Debbie Cronin of Rumford. "The crew has been very helpful and friendly. I see no reason to obtain a new service. The prices are very reasonable for the 20-minute ride."
Added Barbara Tattersall of Keene, N.H., "We have been traveling to our home on Prudence Island for many years and have always appreciated the reliability and capable crew of the Prudence Island Ferry, in good weather or bad. The idea of looking for a new carrier is ridiculous!"
Intent of hearing
According to Mr. Leite, the intent of the PUC hearing is to decide whether or not two ferry services or needed, not whether one should be endorsed over another.
“Personally, I don’t mind the competition. That would be fine with me,” he said. Mr. Leite added, however, that two separate ferry carriers wouldn’t be able to survive because there are not enough passengers, especially in the winter.