I-Team Exclusive: Inside Block Island's ferry feud

Interstate Navigation opposes a proposed competing ferry service from Quonset to Block Island. (WJAR)

Seasonal high-speed ferry service to Block Island from Quonset was supposed to start running two years ago, but a lengthy legal battle is keeping the project in dry dock and dividing people both on and off the island.

“We know there’s a demand for the service,” Charlie Donadio said.

Donadio first applied to Rhode Island’s Division of Public Utilities and Carriers for a license to start the ferry service back in 2013. His company, Rhode Island Fast Ferry, already runs seasonal high speed ferries to Martha’s Vineyard from Quonset.

"You would have thought you'd have people just rushing to support this,” Donadio said. “It's been nothing but a legal battle since day one."

That legal battle pits Interstate Navigation, which owns the Block Island Ferry, and the town of New Shoreham against Donadio’s company. Interstate filed a lawsuit in 2017, asking a judge in Superior Court to intervene in the state licensing process.

This week, a hearing officer said the DPUC won’t hold up the project, and sent the matter back to Superior Court.

A ruling there is expected to take another six months or longer. Either side could then ask Rhode Island’s Supreme Court to take up the case.

Meanwhile, Donadio is spending an estimated $8 million to build a new luxury fast ferry, currently under construction in Somerset, with plans to start service for the 2019 summer season.

But launching the service has presented bigger obstacles than just building the boat.

The town of New Shoreham strongly opposes the project, citing potential problems like overcrowding and a lack of dock facilities, and filed a memorandum with the DPUC outlining numerous issues.

The I-Team sat down with Town Manager Ed Roberge to discuss those concerns.

"It really represents a considerable safety issue,” Roberge said. “That's what we're most concerned about, is how do we got those people safely here, and then get them back home to get out of here?"

Several new high-speed ferries have started service to Block Island in recent years, including runs from Fall River and Newport, which are operated by Interstate Navigation, and an additional high speed service that recently started from Long Island, New York.

Roberge told NBC 10 that Old Harbor, where most ferries dock, simply can’t handle any more traffic.

"I think we're at that break point,” he said. "If you're there on July 4th and you're seeing the parade of ferries coming in, it becomes extremely difficult.”

Another concern for the roughly 1000 year-round Block Island residents: competition for summer ferry traffic could hurt Interstate Navigation’s lifeline ferry service during the winter months, which brings crucial freight and supplies.

"Fuel oil, gasoline, food, medical supplies,” Roberge said, noting that Interstate could reduce off-season ferry service or raise the rates that residents and business owners pay.

Paul Filippi, one of the owners of Ballard’s Inn on Block Island, wants to build two new docks in Old Harbor. His company, Blue Water LLC, is working with Donadio’s Rhode Island Fast Ferry on the proposed ferry project.

“There's a lot of parochial interests at play here in the town that are looking to prevent competition with the 80-year-old monopoly Interstate Navigation," Filippi said.

Before dock construction can begin, Blue Water must get numerous state and federal approvals—a long and complicated process. The copany suffered a setback in March, when its application to the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC) was sent back as deficient due to questions about whether Filippi has legal access to the two proposed locations.

Asked if he can still build the docks despite strong opposition from the town, Filippi said, “Yes, it is possible.” He said he plans to appear before the CRMC with a finalized dock plan in September.

Meanwhile, construction on the new ferry continues at the shipyard in Somerset with the finished vessel expected in a few months.

"This service is ready to go starting in May of 2019,” Donadio said. "Docks move forward, we move forward."

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