Commuter ferry service debated

Fri, 01/26/2018 - 9:00am

The potential need for a commuter ferry service to and from Block Island was raised during a discussion concerning the Island’s elderly population. Island Free Library Director Kristin Baumann broached the idea at a recent community meeting sponsored by the Senior Advisory Committee at the Community Center.

“What if people who lived on the mainland could commute to work here?” Baumann told The Times, noting that the idea came to her during the meeting. “Loads of people across this country commute to work on buses, subways, cars, bikes, and for long commutes. So considering the ferry as public transport for commuters seemed worth exploring. Lots of people do it already.”

“We’re growing, and aging,” remarked Baumann, who said Gloria Redlich, Senior Coordinator for the SAC, “reported on the need for more caretakers” on Block Island. “Remarks were made about other health care needs: physical therapists, specialists, etc. We have a need for housing teachers, librarians, and even our town manager. I think we are lucky to have housing for the Library Director, newspaper editor and reporter. Housing is always on the list of needs for town department heads and local businesses. So, I thought, what if we solved the housing issue in a different way?”

Redlich said a commuter ferry service is “an interesting idea. Anything that makes it easier to access resources for seniors that we don’t have would be beneficial.” She said the “value of the service should be for multi-constituents,” not just seniors.

“We need caregivers who might live off-island,” said Redlich. “Bringing them over should be explored.” 

Redlich said a feasibility study could determine a need for the service. She noted that SAC was drafting a Senior Needs survey that will be sent out in the spring, and could include the question of whether a commuter service would be useful to the Island’s seniors.    

Baumann explained it this way: “Say someone worked from nine-to-five, but came on an early boat and left on a later one. Maybe they would go to a coffeehouse before work and use the library after work. Maybe they would teach, or take a yoga class while on island. Better ferry service opens up loads of possibilities. It also allows for people to get off the island. SAC has concerns about people being able to get to doctor appointments and rehabilitation services, etc.”

As for operation of a commuter service, Rhode Island Fast Ferry owner Charlie Donadio, Jr. told The Times that, “You would need the right vessel for year-round service. Our current fleet of high-speed catamarans would fit the requirements. We currently operate year-round service for the Block Island Wind Farm, shuttling up to 16 passengers on any given day on our smaller 21-meter high-speed catamaran.”

“Commuter ferry services usually operate in the early morning, and return in the evening, and would not normally carry vehicles,” said Donadio, who noted that it could be a passenger/freight service. “For instance, Hy-Line Cruises has provided high-speed commuter ferry service to Nantucket, starting as early as 6:10 a.m., and the Steamship Authority’s schedule to Martha’s Vineyard begins at 6 a.m., to allow for commuters.”

Donadio said a new commuter ferry service is “possible, but first we must get off the ground with our initial fast ferry service from Quonset Point to Old Harbor. The DPUC granted my company a license 18 months ago after three contentious years of opposition from the town and Interstate Navigation. As of today the Town of New Shoreham continues to litigate this license trying to overturn it, and now fight our dockage plans.”

Baumann said, “There was support for the service at the meeting. I think we need to negotiate with Interstate for better service, or negotiate a contract with somebody else. We should know why the town continues to sue Donadio, because that could be a potential solution.”

“Housing solutions are long-term, and limited,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to address the housing problem, so we need to look to other solutions.” 

First Warden Ken Lacoste, who was in attendance at the meeting, told The Times that Block Island “has daily commuter ferry services April through November and even a few days a week in the dead of winter. I personally would like to see any necessary senior care provided by year-round Island residents, so the year-round island economy, and community, is bolstered and supported by the folks providing the services.”

Second Warden André Boudreau, who also attended the meeting, agreed with Lacoste. “We have a ferry service that runs two-thirds of the year, and a couple of days in the winter for same-day round-trip service. If Interstate sees an economical way to make more round trips possible, I'm sure we would all welcome that for caregivers, or anyone, with business to conduct on the Island.”

“I would rather focus on providing some sort of assisted living situation, with staff on hand, to care for our elderly,”  said Boudreau. “Nobody will doubt that having to leave your home for care, is a terrifying prospect to face in our twilight years. I don’t think we need to discuss when to accomplish this. I think we need to discuss how we are going to accomplish this. We only short change ourselves as a society if we continue to short shrift the needs of our elderly population.”

The Block Island Times reached out to Interstate Navigation regarding the subject of a commuter service, but did not receive a response by press time.