Commissioner vows 'no surprises' in new ferry rates

By Stephanie Grinnell | Apr 25, 2019
Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell Islesboro Selectman Gabe Pendleton speaks during a public hearing April 24 about ferry rates.

Belfast — While there was no support voiced for a draft ferry rate hike during a public hearing April 24, islanders appeared optimistic about the process and the new Maine Department of Transportation commissioner.

The tone of this week’s hearing was markedly different than that of one held in November, also at University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast, with frequent applause and intermittent laughter. Most speakers thanked Commissioner Bruce Van Note for attending the hearing — the department’s previous commissioner was criticized in November for failing to be present during public hearings. Van Note said the Maine State Ferry Service, which is overseen by Maine DOT, is just a small percentage of the overall budget but during his few months in office has been a looming issue. He pledged transparency in the process of setting new ferry rates, which are needed to offset a projected budget shortfall.

“You will see everything coming; there won’t be any surprises,” Van Note said.

Last year, Maine DOT rolled out a flat-rate structure that had not been previously discussed in public meetings, leading to outrage among islanders who use Maine State Ferry Service and a lawsuit against Maine DOT by Islesboro. The court determined that islanders were correct to insist on a rulemaking process, rather than the adjudicatory one used to set the flat rates. Both the November and April hearings are part of the rulemaking process. For now, the lawsuit is in a holding pattern, Van Note said.

“I know, we know, the fare imposed last spring has been disruptive,” he said, adding there has been a significant decrease in ridership — and therefore revenues — since the new flat rates went into effect in May 2018. “ … I hope everyone feels heard at the end of the day and can agree it’s fair, even if it’s not what you want.”

Maine DOT recently released new proposed rates based off the flat-rate structure, but the commissioner said  he “would be shocked” if the proposal became the final rule. The latest proposal adds between 17 percent and 20 percent to the flat rates.

“We took the original one — the one that caused lawsuits — and added to it,” Van Note said.

Maine DOT counsel Jim Billings also acknowledged the poor reception of the flat rates, which he said were “met with almost universal skepticism, if not outright hatred.” He urged those attending the hearing as well as others, so submit comments on the proposal to him by May 10. The deadline for accepting comments could be extended, Billings said, but to be sure comments are included, interested parties should meet the May 10 deadline. Van Note asked those who have emailed him directly to also copy Billings with comments “to make sure it gets to the right place.”

Local lawmakers offered comments on the proposal and urged swift action to change the flat rates, including Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Waldo County, and County Commissioner Betty Johnson of Lincolnville.  Van Note said he must follow the process, which determines the timeline.

“I am moving as expeditiously as I can while still following the process,” he said. “We are not dallying.”

State Reps. Vicki Doudera of Camden, who represents Islesboro, and Genevieve McDonald of Deer Isle, who represents several islands on Maine State Ferry Service routes  including Frenchboro, North Haven, Swans Island and Vinalhaven, also were present and spoke briefly.

Van Note was met with applause after stating, “I think we should be thinking about modernizing our ticket system.” Islanders reinforced that idea with suggestions such as a ticketing system modeled after the interstate E-Z Pass.

Also offered as alternatives to the flat rate tickets were seasonal tickets and basing costs on the length of routes. Islesboro Selectman Gabe Pendleton, who has been working closely with Van Note, said it would be easier to determine peak ridership with better tracking by the ferry service. His point was echoed by other island residents.

“Islanders on every island are paying more money,” Pendleton said. “I don’t believe this is a way forward.”

Several speakers also suggested Maine DOT seek a longer vision for the ferry service that includes more efficient ferries.

“We need to be looking to the future, which is electric,” Pendleton said.

Resident Doug Weldon said island residents expect a reasonable increase in ticket prices and would support that.

“(But) Maine State Ferry Service should be our Walmart, not our Tiffany’s,” he said.

Van Note, in his closing remarks, said, “I’m going for Renys,” and was cheered.

Former Selectman and Ferry Service Advisory Board member John Emerson summarized a story — for want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe, a horse was lost; and for the want of a horse, a kingdom was lost — and asked Van Note to pick up the Tariff No. 7 shoe, with some changes. Previously, Tariff No. 7 was in place for nearly a decade.

“Commissioner Van Note, you were not a party to losing the nail, but you have picked up the honest collaboration nail,” Emerson said. “Now, you just need to pick up the Tariff 7 shoe.”

Other regional officials spoke as well, including selectmen from Camden and Lincolnville, who voiced support for island residents.

North Haven Town Administrator Rick Lattimer said residents on that island “are just as concerned about these increases.” He said he hopes the new process, and new commissioner, will seize the opportunity to work with islanders toward an agreeable solution.

“Then we won’t be in this constant loop of us versus them (DOT),” Lattimer said.

Local attorney Bill Kelley spoke about challenges the flat-rate fees has caused within the small Islesboro school, including loss of families with students and difficulty budgeting for increased ferry fees for teachers who travel from the mainland each day. He cited 2006 testimony of Van Note, then deputy commissioner, during a funding change that determined the costs of the ferry service would be split. Statute requires that Maine DOT fund 50 percent of the ferry service budget, while the other half is raised by revenues from ticket sales.

Becky Schnur, known locally as Boycott Becky since the flat rates took effect in May 2018, said she commutes each day to her job in Augusta. She said the flat rates are an “unmitigated failure” and said “it’s the distance that matters.” She also suggested the child rates, currently for those up to age 12, be extended to 16-year-olds, who are unable to drive once on the mainland. Schnur, and others, also criticized handicapped accessibility on the Margaret Chase Smith, which carries passengers the 3 miles between Lincolnville and Islesboro. She said her mother has a message for Maine DOT: It makes her very angry to cross the bridge to Verona Island, which was paid for with taxpayer money, and does not have a toll, while at the same time “the ferry is our bridge.”

Resident John King put together charts showing the significant loss in ridership on Islesboro.

“What’s bad for the island is bad for the Maine State Ferry Service,” he said.

Other people, including Bill Tildon, said trips off-island are consolidated to allow multiple appointments or stops on the mainland rather than for recreation or enjoyment.

“Now, when we go over, we go over for a reason,” he said, later adding, “You’ve got me thinking about buying a boat. … But I would rather not because a boat is a pain in the ass.”

Owen Howell works at the island health center and said there are some very young as well as older residents delaying needed care because of the increased costs to go to the mainland where treatment is available.

“It’s OK, guys, you made a mistake,” he said. “You’ve got egg on your face and it’s OK.”

Howell, too, encouraged Maine DOT to put new rates in place before September, which is the anticipated time frame.

“It’s hard. It’s a lot of money and people are suffering,” he said.

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