The owners of Interstate Navigation and Rhode Island Fast Ferry are at it again.
The two ferry operators, whose rivalry has shaped the commercial ferry market in Rhode Island for the past 15 years, are jousting once again over control of local waterways.
Shuttling passengers to Block Island hasn’t been overly profitable in recent years, but both Interstate, owner of the Block Island Ferry, and Rhode Island Fast Ferry, owner of the Martha’s Vineyard Fast Ferry, want to add new routes to the island.
Interstate plans to start a new high-speed service from Fall River next summer, while Rhode Island Fast Ferry wants to sail there from its base in the Quonset Business Park.
Expanded ferry service looks like a positive for the communities involved, but it renews old questions about the impact of competition on the year-round slow ferry that brings Block Islanders, their cars and cargo to the island during the winter.
Rhode Island Fast Ferry’s proposal to open a Quonset high-speed route – which would be the fourth high-speed ferry link to Block Island – has divided towns and business groups, prompting talk of “ferry wars” on the coast.
The Narragansett Chamber of Commerce, whose territory includes the Block Island ferry docks at Point Judith and whose board includes an Interstate Navigation executive, initially opposed the Quonset route.
But after drawing complaints about stifling competition, the Narragansett Chamber earlier this month reversed its stance on the Quonset ferry proposal by an 8-5 vote. At the same meeting Executive Director Deborah Kelso resigned, although she says the timing was coincidental.
“It’s déjà vu all over again – they are making the same arguments they did when I applied to run the Athena to the island,” said Rhode Island Fast Ferry President Charles Donadio Jr. about opposition to a new ferry. Donadio in 2001 started the first high-speed ferry service to the island in the face of opposition.
“They say we’ll take revenue away from them and then jack up rates,” Donadio said about Interstate Navigation. “They’re trying to scare the island and hold them hostage because they have the only dock space on the island.”
Since Interstate’s year-round ferry route from Point Judith is a monopoly and considered a “lifeline” for residents, it is tightly regulated by the R.I. Public Utilities Commission.