After more than a year of elevated ferry rates that drew the ire of island residents, Maine Department of Transportation on July 10 released a revised structure designed to reverse the drop-off in ridership and revenue.

The latest proposal does away with the flat rates across all islands served by Maine State Ferry Service, which include Islesboro, Frenchboro, Matinicus, Swans Island, North Haven and Vinalhaven.

Maine DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note in April acknowledged that in the time since the new flat-rate structure was implemented in May 2018, there has been a drop in ridership on 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.

The current flat-rate ticket prices for all of the islands are $11 per adult passenger and $30 for a vehicle and driver.

Now, according to a revised ferry rate proposal dated July 10, Islesboro riders will pay $8 per adult during the off-peak season between October and May, and $22 for a vehicle and driver. The cost will increase during the summer months — June to September — by $5 per passenger and by $7.50 per vehicle.

Matinicus year-round fares under the proposal will be $30 per adult, $15 for minors and $80 for a vehicle and driver, which includes a reservation fee. On all of the other islands, off-peak rates are proposed at $12.50 per adult and $31 per vehicle and driver.

In addition, special provisions are included in the new proposal. Those provisions include a commuter discount, fewer restrictions to qualify for a medical discount, children’s ticket prices will apply until age 17 (previously 12) and teachers will ride free for school and related events.

“As Maine DOT indicated at several times during the fresh look process, this proposal adopts different rates for different islands to partially reflect the differing costs per passenger per island,” the proposal states. “From the input received, we expect that Islesboro may opine that there is not enough of a reduction, and other islands may opine that it is too much. We note that this is one ferry system, and the intent was never to calculate with mathematical certainty the different costs of different runs to different islands at different times of year and charge accordingly. The intent was to recognize and reflect differing cost in a general way.”

Maine DOT is accepting comment on the new proposal until close of business Friday, July 19, but another public hearing is anticipated. The proposal states the new rates could be in place by Oct. 1.

“Looking beyond this rulemaking process, we intend to further modernize the MSFS with a new ticket system and other changes,” the proposal states.

Maine State Ferry Service is funded partially by the state and overseen by Maine DOT. A projected budget shortfall led to the new 2018 flat rates. The Ferry Service estimates it costs $12 million per year to operate. Capital cost such as ferries, terminals and piers are 100% paid by the state highway fund. Operating costs are split between fares and gas/diesel tax revenues.

“Numerous people testified that they believed the best way to provide lower rates was to provide more subsidy,” the proposal states. “ … Although we understand many islanders may disagree, Maine DOT respectfully submits that additional state subsidy is unlikely and would be hard to justify from a statewide policy perspective.”

The proposal also suggests that island communities consider contributing to the cost of the Ferry Service.

“Currently, the island communities served by the MSFS do not provide any direct financial support to the MSFS,” it states. “If they did, fares could be reduced dramatically. … Again, we fully understand that such a concept requires more thought and discussion.”

The next rate review is scheduled for 2023.