This week, Maine Department of Transportation officials announced that a new, flat-rate fee structure for ferry service to the islands will be implemented May 21.

Maine State Ferry Service provides ferry transportation to the Penobscot Bay island communities of Vinalhaven, North Haven, Islesboro, Swans Island, Frenchboro and Matinicus. The ferry service proposed increased user fees to cover a projected shortfall in its 2020 operating budget of $11 million. State law requires that at least 50 percent of operating costs come from user fees.

oved rates will “standardize ferry prices across the entire system,” according to a press release from Maine DOT.

“A key component of the new rate structure is an overall decrease of more than 10 percent to the truck/freight rates to help keep the costs to Maine businesses supplying goods and services to and from the islands competitive,” the press release states.

Maine DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt said the new rate is expected to lead to better customer service and use of technology.

“It will also provide all Maine residents, businesses and visitors greater flexibility, treating all users equitably by eliminating the antiquated and geographically discriminatory rate pricing that currently differs from island to island and island to mainland,” Bernhardt said.

Islanders urged the ferry service to consider a flat-rate increase rather than its original proposal, which would have set different fees for year-round and seasonal residents. A decision on the new rates — originally set to begin in March — was delayed by DOT officials after the feedback, which included a letter from Islesboro selectmen.

Following a Jan. 29 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.”

“MSFS had originally proposed to implement a new resident/non-resident rate structure by the end of March,” Bernhardt said in a March press release. “However, due to the considerable input received at both the public meetings on the islands, as well as during the written comment period that followed, I am going to take more time to review the record and the rate proposals before making a final decision on how to move forward.”

In a recommended decision authored by James Billings, hearing officer and chief counsel for Maine DOT, it was noted feedback on the original rate increase was not favorable.

“There was not a single person on any of the three separate hearing dates that spoke in favor of the proposal,” Billings wrote. “ … Based on the public input, all were in agreement that the resident/non-resident structure should be abandoned. Also, there was general agreement to greatly simplify the fare structure by having one rate for any trip that can be used on any ferry.

“There was some concern that this places a large portion of the increase on Islesboro, but it was pointed out that: Islesboro receives a subsidy from the ferry service that none of the other communities does; school children from the mainland get free passage back and forth to the charter school and school functions; they have the largest vessel; and they have the most trips offered each day.”

Rates have not increased in 10 years, according to the ferry service. Tickets previously purchased will expire May 21 when the new fee structure begins, but the ferry service will allow those tickets to be traded in for 90 days. Others will have a non-cash upgrade value that will not expire, according to the press release, and additional notices will be posted about ticket expiration.