Ferry rate increase delayed by DOT

By Stephanie Grinnell | Mar 22, 2018
Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell Islesboro's lighthouse, as seen from the ferry in 2013.

A new ferry rate structure proposed by the Maine Department of Transportation has been put on hold following an outpouring of complaints from island residents and officials.

The new rates proposed in January would have set different fees based on residency. Rates have not increased in nearly a decade, according to DOT, and state law requires at least 50 percent of the ferry service's operating costs to come from user fees. The year-round ferry service carries passengers, vehicles and freight to six islands in Penboscot Bay — North Haven, Vinalhaven, Frenchboro, Islesboro, Swan's Island and Matinicus.

Islesboro selectmen penned a letter to DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt following a Jan. 29 meeting with state officials requesting a delay in implementing new rates.

Following the meeting, board members wrote, “ … it is apparent to both the Select Board and the Islesboro community that additional consideration is needed before finalizing a rate increase and implementing a plan.”

The increased ferry rates were proposed to offset a projected $740,000 shortfall in the budget and were set to take effect later this month.

“MSFS had originally proposed to implement a new resident/non-resident rate structure by the end of March,” Bernhardt said in a press release. “However, due to the considerable input received at both the public meetings on the islands, as well as during the written comment period that followed, I am going to take more time to review the record and the rate proposals before making a final decision on how to move forward.”

Islesboro selectmen also cited concerns that ferry ridership could drop following a rate increase as people switch to a water taxi service and private vessels or simply stay home. In addition, the proposal to offer different rates for residents and out-of-state ferry users could, according to selectmen, “lead to unnecessary confusion during the ticketing and boarding process,” as officials check IDs and find passengers with the wrong tickets.

Maine State Ferry Service Manager Mark Higgins said the plan includes greater efficiencies and technology upgrades that are “imperative for the future” of the ferry service. He previously mentioned online ticketing and reservations as options.

“We will be taking the valuable public input we received, and work with the commissioner to craft a final rate structure that incorporates the public feedback with the MSFS operational and policy goals, for release and implementation in the coming months,” Higgins said.

Islanders have suggested an across-the-board increase to ferry rates as a fairer approach. Should an equal increase be approved by DOT, island students — as a math exercise — figured rates would need to increase 17 percent.

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