Fast ferry case like a ping-pong ball

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 9:45am
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Rhode Island’s Division of Public Utilities and Carriers has opted not to revisit its decision approving Rhode Island Fast Ferry’s license to operate a high-speed ferry from Quonset Point to Block Island, which means the case will be sent back to Superior Court. The Town of New Shoreham, alongside Interstate Navigation, the Pt. Judith-based owner and operator of the Block Island Ferry, have been litigating RIFF”s license, and its pursuit of securing dockage for a Quonset to Block Island route for almost two years. Superior Court Judge Richard Licht had remanded the case back to the Division on May 2, 2017. The case is now headed back to him.

In the Division’s July 16, 2018 order, written by Hearing Officer John Spirito, it states: “That in response to the May 2, 2017 remand order of the Superior Court, and predicated on the findings contained herein, the Division finds insufficient cause to revisit the issues discussed and addressed in the Division’s previous decision denying the Town’s Motion for Summary Disposition (Order No. 22254, issued on December 10, 2015.)”

The Division order noted: “What the evidence shows is a Herculean effort by the Town to persuade the Division to accept the Town’s position as prophetic and inviolate on the merits of the remaining legal processes before the Coastal Resources Management Council and Army Corps of Engineers, which is not the standard that must be applied on this remand.” The Division has “established a precedent for approving Certificate of Public Conveyance and Necessity applications without proof that an applicant already possesses suitable docks” for a proposed service.  

“It is unreasonable for the Town to continue to urge the Division to revisit the licensing aspect of this docket based on a present lack of demonstrable docking access. The proper time for the Town to raise the issue would be during the Division’s consideration of any further requests from RIFF to extend the deadline for effectuating the start of its proposed ferry services.” 

The Division’s order also noted: “That the latest designs being considered by Bluewater do not reflect new docking facilities that warrant additional review by the Division.” The Town of New Shoreham has argued that Bluewater, LLC, owned by Paul Filippi, altered its plans to accommodate docking facilities at Old Harbor. Filippi is responsible for securing dockage for the RIFF route at Old Harbor.

Filippi told The Times that, “The dockage plan hasn’t changed” since Bluewater first submitted plans to the Division. “We only included the additional pedestrian pathway parallel to the east dock because of pedestrian traffic concerns that were brought up by the Harbormaster.” Filippi is proposing two possible dockage locations in the eastern section of Old Harbor: near the red breakwater and beside the east bait dock.

In response to the order, RIFF owner Charlie Donadio, Jr. said, “Rhode Island Fast Ferry applied to the Division four years ago to operate a new fast ferry from Quonset Point to Old Harbor, and since then — at great expense to the island taxpayers — the Town Solicitor has filed every legal action possible to stop, delay or dismiss this application. You have to ask yourself why is the town continuing to protect Interstate Navigation’s 80 year old monopoly? Sixteen Division Orders later the Town Solicitor is now doing everything possible to stop our dockage proposal, which will support this new ferry service.”

Donadio said, “This new fast ferry service will be beneficial to the state of Rhode Island, as well as the visiting tourists and residents of Block Island by offering another convenient choice to travel to and from the island. At what point does the Town Council realize that this new ferry service would be good for the island? I would welcome a meeting to work together as Rhode Island Fast Ferry will provide many benefits to Block Island much like the other seasonal ferry companies.”

The New Shoreham Town Council has opposed RIFF’s Quonset to Block Island route since 2013. In Feb. of 2018, town officials cited “safety concerns, dock capacity and vessel circulation” at Old Harbor as a reason for opposing RIFF’s proposed service. 

Town Manager Ed Roberge said the Division’s order is “just another step in the process. It’s a complex case, and a lengthy process.” Roberge said the town’s opposition to the proposed ferry service from Quonset is based on a “combination of things, but traffic at Old Harbor is one of the elements that the Town Council expressed concern about as a safety issue. It’s a capacity concern down there, and we have to be mindful of that.”

“The Town Council has been steadfast in its opposition. There’s been the same concern 17 times,” said Roberge, noting the litigation involving the Division’s orders. “Three separate Town Councils have opposed the ferry service. They haven’t changed their policy decision.”  

The Division granted RIFF with a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity license on Sept. 22, 2016 to operate the service with the condition that RIFF find dockage at Old Harbor’s inner basin. Per an extension by the Division, RIFF has until September of 2018 to secure dockage, or file a request for another extension.