Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note opened an April 13 public meeting about ferry rates with an apology to Islesboro residents: “The (rate-setting) process did not meet the high standards of Maine DOT … And for that, I’m sorry. In my view that’s not the way to go about it. I know the rates have been very disruptive to this island community.”

Van Note acknowledged that in the time since the new flat-rate structure was implemented in May 2018, there has been a drop in ridership of the Margaret Chase Smith, which traverses the 3 miles between the mainland in Lincolnville and Islesboro. He said other islands, all with longer commutes, have also seen a ridership decrease, but none as steep as Islesboro — he estimated a 20-percent drop in vehicle and driver tickets.

Islesboro residents blame that decrease on the higher cost — a more than 100-percent jump in the price of a ticket for a vehicle and driver from the previous rates — and deny any "Amazon effect" or intentional island-wide boycott of the ferry service.

Van Note also made clear the letter he sent to island officials earlier this month was a requirement to keep the rulemaking process going and not a firm statement on his plan to establish new ferry tolls. Higher ferry rates are needed to offset a projected budget shortfall.

“We do need to raise the money to operate the service viably,” he said, later adding the 17- to 20-percent increase across the board he wrote about in the letter is not a final proposal, saying, “I would be shocked if it is.”

All options are being considered, Van Note said.

“I also understand that whatever I do in the end, not everyone will be happy,” he said.

He urged residents to attend an April 24 public hearing in Belfast — 10 a.m. at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center — to share thoughts on the ferry rates. Comments previously submitted to Maine DOT about the ferry rates remain part of the record, he said. While no official options are expected to be presented then, Van Note said in May or June he expects to let island officials know in a letter “what we’re really thinking about.” Additional public hearings will follow, he said.

“I think that’s what was missing the last time around,” Van Note said, adding he expects new rates to be established and approved by September.

When the rates were finalized last year, many island residents were taken by surprise at the flat-rate proposal approved by Maine DOT. Islesboro officials filed a lawsuit, arguing that Maine DOT failed to follow proper procedure when setting the rates — the lawsuit is on hold by order of a judge as the department begins the rulemaking process again.

The September timeline could accelerate, Van Note said, if the court decides not to continue the stay.

Islesboro Selectman Gabe Pendleton, who has been talking with Van Note since he took office early in January, said he is “very encouraged” by Van Note’s approach and intended process. He noted there is “a tremendous amount of distrust” between islanders and the Maine State Ferry Service, which is overseen by Maine DOT.

“Here we are months later, this is not working,” Pendleton said of the flat rates. “This is not working.”

He, and other islanders, offered a variety of suggestions to consider when setting ferry rates. The suggestions included switching to an electric ferry, shifting money slated for repairs to Islesboro’s ferry pen to Matinicus to make that terminal accessible to more than one type of ferry, establishing a regular replacement schedule for ferries to decrease emergency repairs, reducing the number of trips by gauging which have lower ridership, decreasing fuel use by tying the ferry into the pen with a winch system rather than idling engines, and establishing rates based on poor health (requiring frequent trips off-island) or for teachers.

“I encourage the ferry service to look at how the (budget) shortfall was created,” Pendleton added.

Islanders took issue with prior statements that “an Amazon effect” led to decreased ridership, a point emphasized by 50-year island resident Susan Schnur. She recalled that “generous long-term summer people” made it possible for islanders to have a full-time doctor years ago and noted the school in which the meeting was held sits on land donated by a seasonal resident.

“It used to be people couldn’t work on the mainland and mainland people couldn’t work on the island,” she said. “We ordered from Sears & Roebuck, so never mind Amazon.”

She said the ferry service “did its part in turning things around” at the time.

“It’s an inconvenience living on an island and mostly we don’t mind,” Schnur said, adding taking a car on the ferry to the mainland “is a sensible thing to do for old people” that has been hampered by the new rates.

Bill Kelley, vice chairman of the island’s school board, said the community has worked hard to create a magnet school to attract more students but has had to increase the budget to include the cost of commuting on the ferry — $60 per teacher, per week.

“We cannot find sufficient staff and teachers to run the school,” he said. “We’re in an economic crisis because of this.”

Kelley said the rate change was “akin to a kick in the teeth.” He urged Van Note to consider the economic contributions Islesboro makes throughout the Midcoast and to “review the entire policy because it’s not just about the cost of running a ferry.”

Mark Higgins, with the ferry service, said new diesel boat models that are efficient but built with a traditional look are being considered to help reduce costs. As well, younger personnel (who are paid less) are being hired and more preventative maintenance is planned. For the needs of Islesboro, he said, a new double-ended design is being considered, which will reduce the time spent turning the ferry at both terminals.

Becky Schnur — known since the rate hike as “Boycott Becky” — said she commutes to the mainland without taking the ferry. She suggested making use of existing technology such as E-Z Pass, which would allow the ferry service to charge different rates on different islands. As an alternative, she said, QR codes could be used, or commuter booklets sold at a discount.

Islanders also criticized the ferry service for being unable to provide specific tracking numbers. Van Note said he is now responsible for providing that data and said “some of it is not as strong as it should be,” but “no one’s hiding data from you.”

Pete Anderson, who is 28, said he wanted to give voice to younger islanders impacted by the unexpectedly high rate increase. He attended school on the island, college elsewhere, and then returned to Islesboro, eventually finding a place to live.

“Then the ferry rates went right up,” he said. “It starts to feel a little more unreasonable (to live on the island). I’m not sure if I can anymore.”

Several residents pointed out that the longer the current rates are in place, the more difficult it will be to gain passengers back who have established a less expensive alternative.

Sandy Oliver, however, described herself as looking at the bright side of the increased rates.

“I don’t ever have to worry about there being too many cars,” she said.

Democratic Rep. Vicki Doudera, who represents Camden, Rockport and Islesboro in the state Legislature, noted there is a push at the state level to help rural Maine.

“I ask you, what’s more rural than an island?” she said.

Ursa Beckford spoke on behalf of Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Waldo County, who was at her grandfather’s funeral and could not attend the Saturday meeting. He said Herbig “remains anxious to resolve” the rate issue and intends to remain involved.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Arch Gillies thanked Van Note as the meeting wrapped up.

“Even if some of the comments have some edge to them, that’s reality,” he said. “We look forward to your fresh approach. I’ve got elevated confidence after meeting you.

“I won’t put it in the bank, but will take it on account.”