Ticket rates, the annual budget and parking issues are among the concerns of members of Maine State Ferry Service Advisory Board as outlined in its annual report submitted last week.

Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note, who assumed office earlier this year, was sent the report July 31. Maine DOT oversees the ferry service, which provides transportation to Islesboro, Matinicus, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Frenchboro and Swans Island. Members highlighted a total of eight issues that affect all of the islands, as well as five additional concerns impacting one or two islands only.

All islands were affected by an unexpected flat-rate ferry ticket structure approved by then-Commissioner David Bernhardt in May 2018. Islesboro residents saw the largest increase in fees for the 3-mile trip between the island and Lincolnville. Island officials and residents filed a lawsuit against Maine DOT alleging that improper steps were taken to implement the flat rates and the department agreed to start the process over. The Ferry Service Advisory Board takes note of the dispute in its report.

“We are all concerned about the toll taken on Islesboro and on the DOT and MSFS by the ill-considered promulgation of Tariff No. 8 and about the likely effects on us all of its eventual replacement,” the report states. “On the other hand, we do appreciate the effort being made by you (Van Note) to listen and to take our recommendations seriously and we expect the emerging tariff to be the result of fair and equitable consideration of those recommendations balanced with meeting the budgetary needs of the service in a way that makes sense.”

The reason for the rate increase was to bump revenue to the service to offset a projected budget shortfall. However, following the rate increase, ridership on the Islesboro ferry dropped significantly, Van Note previously said. Other islands saw a lesser decrease in use, but all ridership numbers were down from the previous year.

Maine DOT has been working on a new rate structure since the beginning of the year. A public hearing on the new proposed rates expected to be in place this fall is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, Aug. 19, at University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast.

The advisory board also addressed the budget in its report. Members requested access to more financial information so they can make suggestions to better contain costs.

“We suggest that we, the members, designate a Finance Subcommittee within the FSAB and that more detailed finance and budget information be made available to us all at the board’s regular meetings,” the report states.

The advisory board also requested that Maine DOT provide the proposed budget to the board at least six months prior to its submission to the Legislature for approval. In addition, the board requested a third-party review of salaries and benefits and revision of the ferry service capital plan. Members endorsed “an immediate goal of reducing current costs by at least 10%” as well as a longer-term plan to maximize revenue by changing over to more modern ticketing options.

An old statute that prohibits idling engines on board the ferries has yet to be dealt with at the federal level.

“While we appreciate the efforts of the DOT, the Department of Public Safety, the U.S.C.G. and Sen. Dave Miramant to find a practical and meaningful solution to the prohibition, a satisfactory one has not been found,” the advisory board wrote in its report. “ … The only real and practical remedy is to amend the federal law to allow for the very necessary and practical exceptions needed to protect and provide for the people who so desperately need it, often to preserve life. To that end, we have asked our congressional delegation to get that ball rolling.”

Board members cited unnecessary stress, particularly during the busy summer season, that could be reduced by focusing more on the intent and effective implementation of rules. Stress often is created by a lack of parking, particularly in the Rockland lot, where ferries leave for North Haven and Vinalhaven.  Even those with paid, reserved spots in the lot are hard-pressed to find a spot, the advisory board noted.

“Those of use who play the game regularly know that if we show up in front of the gate, under the sign that says the lot is full, just before a ferry arrives, that several passengers from the arriving ferry will come to the lot to retrieve their vehicles …” the report states. “Others intending to travel to the island(s) but who are not as familiar, and who have no idea what to do, since there is no information available describing options, are left needlessly stressed and often simply forego the intended visit. Clearly there is a need for expanded parking, perhaps a garage — as has been discussed before ….”

Adding to the vehicular confusion, the board argues, is a designated bus loading and unloading area at the Rockland terminal.

“The area just in front of the Rockland terminal is so obviously an area for incoming vehicles to unload or load passengers except for the annoying recording that plays all day long arguing unpersuasively that it is, in fact, not such an area,” advisory board members said.

The solution, board members say, is to close the area to other vehicles only when buses are present or to designate another spot for buses in Rockland.

Parking in Lincolnville is described by advisory board members as “inadequate.” Members request that steps are taken to “find or provide appropriate alternative parking within walking distance of the Lincolnville terminal.”

Housekeeping reminders, such as appointing three more members to the advisory board, are included in the report, as is a request to schedule ferry maintenance so it causes minimal interruption to service.

Recently, the Coast Guard has been critical of emergency transportation by the ferry service. Board members disagree with the assessment of “illegitimate” emergency trips.

“We find no evidence of such abuse,” the report states. “ … Nonetheless, we agree that a protocol must be developed that will address the work parameters set forth by the U.S.C.G. …”

Specific to Vinalhaven and North Haven, advisory board members suggested clearer rules for lining up so parking in the line to board the ferry will cease. The report also suggests “legitimate customer service training” at the Rockland terminal.

“ … the need has never been greater as evidenced by the testimonies, often written, offered by travelers since 2018,” board members said. “Such anguish had simply not been manifest before last year.”

In addition, three long-time employees resigned on Vinalhaven, the board notes, which is further evidence of the need for customer service training.

North Haven ridership in the summer could warrant adding a fourth boat, board members said.

Objections by residents about a reduction in the winter schedule to Vinalhaven were not even acknowledged, according to advisory board members.

“Virtually every adult islander (540) signed a petition to the commissioner objecting to the proposal,” the report states. “Regrettably the DOT did not even respond to the petition. That was, and is, unacceptable.”

Board members note they also objected to the reduced schedule that was put in place with just a few days’ notice.

For the island farthest from the mainland, Matinicus, board members raise concerns about continued service.

“Only the aging Libby can now access Matinicus’ limited dockage and, even then, only at certain tides,” advisory board members said. “The MSFS must invest in a newer and more dependable vessel, sooner rather than later, to give the islanders the peace of mind of knowing their already very limited service will not be interrupted.”