A small but passionate group of islanders attended a mainland hearing Monday on ticket prices proposed by Maine State Ferry Service.

The public hearing and comment period is expected to mark the end of an 18-month back-and-forth between the ferry service, its users and other interested parties that objected to a flat-rate increase unexpectedly implemented in May 2018.

In 2017, public hearings kicked off to gather feedback on higher rates. Maine State Ferry Service is funded partially by the state and overseen by Maine DOT. It serves Islesboro, Matinicus, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Frenchboro and Swans Island.

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.

Islesboro residents saw the largest increase in fees for the 3-mile trip between the island and Lincolnville with the rates implemented in May 2018, which are still in effect. Island officials and residents filed a lawsuit against Maine DOT alleging improper steps were taken to implement the flat rates, and the department agreed to start the process over.

Maine DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note in April acknowledged that in the time since the 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.

The latest proposal and focus of this week’s hearing at University of Maine Hutchinson Center goes back to different rates on different islands. 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 to apply until age 17 (previously 12) and teachers will ride free for school and related events.

Most speakers at the hearing expressed gratitude to Van Note for making the rate changes a priority during his first few months as head of Maine DOT. However, there still are concerns about the new proposal and the future of the ferry service.

State Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, who represents Islesboro, noted there has been a Blue Ribbon Commission established to study the state’s transportation systems, including the ferries. Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Waldo County, suggested an audit of the ferry service to determine if there are cost-saving measures that might reduce its budget, which was echoed throughout the hearing by island residents. Other local officials spoke as well, urging Maine DOT to find a compromise and work to solve existing issues such as parking in Lincolnville, where the Islesboro ferry has a mainland terminal.

Islander Josh Conover spoke to the commercial truck rates and suggested including the price of the driver.

“We’re very frustrated,” he said. “Trucking is vitally important.”

Conover said his company went from an average of $4,500 per year in ferry tolls to more than $10,000 with the most recent rate hike.

“The way the state is currently running it is hurting businesses,” he said.

Islesboro resident Craig Olsen praised inclusion of commuter tickets but suggested a longer time frame to use the tickets.

Many speakers shared the sentiment of John Emerson of Vinalhaven, who said, “I’m a little for, but somewhat against” the most recent proposal. He said the impact of seasonal rate changes won’t be determined for a full year, but in the meantime, islanders “will feel the pain.” Emerson, too, urged ferry service officials to consider the increasing costs and how they can be reduced.

“We’ve been told all the low-hanging fruit has already been harvested,” he said, later adding. “We reached a compromise that’s a shared sacrifice. … Let’s hope this tariff works.”

Doug Welldon of Islesboro focused on medical exemptions — free rides for patients making frequent mainland trips for treatment — and the lack of information about how to apply for one.

“Illness doesn’t wait, gentlemen,” he said after reading a letter from an islander with cancer who waited months before receiving confirmation of his medical exemption.

Those who live at Boardman Cottage, an Islesboro assisted living facility, and their attendants should automatically receive medical exemptions, Welldon argued.

Richard DeGrasse shared his research about other ferry services that use technology for ticketing, while Selectman Gabe Pendleton suggested a reduced peak season between June 15 and Sept. 15. As well, Pendleton offered cost-saving suggestions such as closing the third deck on Margaret Chase Smith, which would reduce required manpower.

Rick Lattimer of North Haven said he hopes the ferry service will consider incremental increases rather than one large increase every few years to lessen the impact on users of the service.

Islesboro resident John King offered a more pessimistic view of the ferry service’s future.

“You might say we’re re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said, noting the best way to increase revenue is to increase ridership. King spelled out operating costs between 2012 to projected costs in 2023 and said if the same approach continues, the operating budget will have increased almost 50% for the same level of service.

“Unless, and until, we get some control over the operating expenses,” he said, “costs will continue going up and ridership, down. … That, I think, is a more long-term solution.”

Jeff Diggins agreed.

“I don’t see the problem as a revenue problem; what we have is an expense problem,” the Islesboro resident said. “ … This is simply a bridge to the next round of rate increases.”

Myron “Sonny” Sprague of Swans Island noted all of the islands share one thing — water. He said he thinks the new rates are fair and based on some of the differences in the islands.

“Costs are wicked high, we’ve had the high rate for many years,” Sprague said, adding ferries are going to need replacement soon as well.

Rep. Ann Matlack, D-St. George, offered a voice for Matinicus, the most remote island. She said the erratic schedule based on tides and the need for a smaller ferry to access the island terminal are important to her constituents there.

The comment period on the new rates will remain open until Tuesday, Sept. 3.