In a letter released May 17, Maine Department of Transportation Chief Counsel Jim Billings denied a request on behalf of Islesboro to delay implementation of a ferry rate increase.

The higher rates became effective May 21.

The new tariff structure approved by Maine DOT, which oversees the ferry service on Penobscot Bay, is a flat rate for all islands served. On Islesboro, according to residents and officials, the new rates represent a 118-percent increase for a vehicle and driver to travel between the island and the mainland.

The ferry service also operates between the mainland and Vinalhaven, North Haven, Swans Island, Frenchboro and Matinicus. According to a comparison of the old and new rates, the new rates are significantly decreased for Matinicus, even considering a new $15 reservation fee — Matinicus was the only island without a reservation charge under the previous rate structure. Islesboro rates in every category increased.

Since the new rates were released in mid-April, Islesboro residents have been vocal in their opposition to the fees, which they argue are not equitable and were approved without public input.

Attorney Mary Costigan with Bernstein Shur, on behalf of Islesboro, on May 11 requested Maine DOT hold off on the new rates.

"As explained below, the town and its residents will suffer irreparable injury if the proposed tariff goes into effect on May 21, 2018, as planned … " she wrote.

Costigan's letter goes on to argue Maine DOT violated the Administrative Procedure Act because it failed "to request comments from the public concerning the changes from the proposed rule if a rule that the agency intends to adopt is substantially different from the proposed rule.

" … The rate structure that was adopted by the Department does not at all resemble the proposed structure. Rather, it is a flat rate structure that was not provided to the public for comment prior to adoption as required by the APA," Costigan wrote.

Initially, Maine DOT proposed charging different rates based on residency, which drew objections from several island communities. Based on the negative public reaction, Maine DOT came out with new flat-rate fees in mid-April, reportedly taking islanders by surprise.

Jan Davidson said her husband has commuted to work on Islesboro for 15 years. She said they hope to move to the island when she retires but said “the most paranoid pessimist would not have included in their retirement planning a 120-percent fare increase, levied without warning, on a commuter island.” Davidson said affordable access to the mainland is important to complete “all the chores of a normal life.”

Costigan also cautioned of negative impacts on Islesboro with the higher rates.

"This rate structure will have a debilitating impact on the island community that will force many residents to move off the island, could cause the schools to close and could ultimately cause Islesboro to cease being a year-round community," Costigan said.

In a letter responding to Costigan, Maine DOT's Billings said the primary reason for denying the stay is that "there's not been a showing of irreparable harm where rates for service are the issue. This is a classic case for money damages rather than injunctive relief; if you are successful on appeal anyone who has overpaid for a ticket could be refunded any difference in fare."

He continued by stating that the new rates should be implemented in a timely manner, adding, "Any stay or change in the rates at this point affects every other type of rate, the other islands, the citizens of Maine, and other users of the overall ferry system."

Billings said the process was followed with appropriate public input and consideration by DOT.

"That decision is final agency action. It would be completely inappropriate to now engage in closed door meetings with interested parties, while representatives from other islands are excluded, in order to come up with a new rate that Islesboro deems a 'fair and equitable solution.'"

In a previous interview, Islesboro Selectman Gabe Pendleton said selectmen are considering alternatives.

“Every option is on the table,” he said in a phone interview May 4. “[Selectmen] are certainly having broad conversations. We’re trying to make a good decision for the town.”

Pendleton said a legal challenge to the new rate structure is likely, a sentiment echoed in the letter sent to Maine DOT requesting the stay.

On May 21, the date the rates became effective, an email distributed by Islesboro's Town Office stated an appeal would be filed that day. The email urged residents to keep receipts so they could be reimbursed the difference if the appeal is won.

"Please save the receipts from any ticket purchased at the new unreasonable price as we will be asking the court to force the state to refund the difference between the new and old rate if we are successful," the email reads.