Town officials and residents object to a ferry rate increase proposed by Maine Department of Transportation that would charge different rates based on residency.

Islesboro selectmen penned a letter to DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt following a Jan. 29 meeting with state officials, requesting a delay in implementing new rates.

Following the meeting, board members wrote, “ … it is apparent to both the Select Board and the Islesboro community that additional consideration is needed before finalizing a rate increase and implementing a plan.”

The increased ferry rates were proposed to offset a projected $740,000 shortfall in the budget and are supposed to take effect at the end of March, according to a story published in Portland Press Herald. The year-round ferry service carries passengers, vehicles and freight to six islands in Penboscot Bay — North Haven, Vinalhaven, Frenchboro, Islesboro, Swan's Island and Matinicus.

The Courier-Gazette reported in April 2017 that the rate structure would be seasonal and that rates haven't increased in more than a decade. Since then, the rate proposal has shifted to charging different rates to Maine residents and out-of-state residents. Origination of the tickets also no longer would be a factor — currently, tickets purchased on the islands are less expensive than those purchased on the mainland, but under the proposed changes, residency would be the sole criterion.

The letter states Islesboro generates 66 percent of the cost to run its ferry, the Margaret Chase Smith, and it is the only island to fund more than 50 percent. Yet, town officials say, Islesboro is facing the highest rate increase.

“This strikes the Select Board and the community as patently unfair and unreasonable, given that Islesboro is already providing a larger percentage of the cost of running its ferry than every other island,” selectmen wrote. “In essence, Islesboro is already subsidizing other ferries and now is being asked to bear the brunt of an increase.”

Selectmen also cited a water taxi service operating on the island and outlined concerns that ferry ridership could drop with the rate increase as people switch to the taxi service, private vessels or simply stay home. In addition, the proposal to offer different rates for residents and out-of-state ferry users could, according to selectmen, “lead to unnecessary confusion during the ticketing and boarding process” as officials check IDs and find passengers with the wrong tickets.

As an alternative, Islesboro selectmen suggest an across-the-board rate increase for all tickets to all islands. Several town officials and business organizations on Vinalhaven have also made similar suggestions for more equitable rate adjustments.

In a letter to the Courier-Gazette editor, Vinalhaven town officials outlined specific alternatives.

"After the public hearing here on the islands last week, our high school math teacher seized the moment to present your department’s dilemma to his students and ask them how to solve it," Vinalhaven representatives wrote.

"We are all very proud to tell you that spirited and constructive deliberation, not only among our own students but also with students from North Haven and Islesboro, has resulted in their recommendation, which is in accord with our own and which we have attached."

The island students described their problem-solving: "We propose to take the revenue estimate of the current ticket structure: $4,456,067 and subtract it from the proposed increase: $5,194,309. We see the shortfall is $738,242 between the current rate and the proposal. Dividing this by the current structure revenue we see that we need to increase cost 16.567 percent. We have rounded this number to 17 percent.

"We believe that if all fares are increased by this percentage, the needed revenue will be achieved and the way tickets are sold will not have to be changed. Given the ridership report we received from (Ferry Service Manager) Mark Higgins, we see that in almost every category there has been positive growth. With this in mind, and the increase of 17 percent, we believe, even if some people are deterred from the increased cost, that we will still be able to raise the needed revenue. In our minds, this is what is fair and equitable to everyone."

Maine DOT officials, however, told Portland Press Herald there are advantages to the new pricing structure.

"We believe this is a much better way to implement the discount structure," Higgins said. "It will allow us to have greater efficiency. We may have online ticketing, online reservations and reduce the need for future rate increases."

Higgins told the Portland paper the rate changes must be approved by the state transportation commissioner.