Islesboro lawsuit seeks to void ferry rate increase

By Stephanie Grinnell | Jun 12, 2018
Photo by: Susan Mustapich The Margaret Chase Smith departs the Lincolnville ferry terminal, en route to Islesboro.

The actions of one island community are pitting it — and its state representative — against other island officials and the state.

Islesboro filed a lawsuit against Maine Department of Transportation late in May, seeking to review a final decision by Maine DOT to increase ferry rates. Islanders in that town say the rate increases unfairly impact Islesboro, while other Penobscot Bay islands are seeing smaller increases — or in Matinicus’ case, a significant decrease.

The new flat-fee ferry rate for a round-trip vehicle and driver increased more than 100 percent on Islesboro, to $30. A Maine DOT announcement of the rate increase includes a summary that notes the changes: “All mainland ticket prices from VH/NH/SI decreased, with only modest increases in pricing for passenger/vehicle tickets for residents on the island.

"• Rates for Matinicus and Frenchboro — the most remote islands with limited ferry service — decrease significantly, with the intent to assist with the sustainability of those islands.

"• Rates to/from Islesboro were raised to equalize all pricing across the system. Even after raising prices, the new rates to ride to or from Islesboro remain similar (to) or lower (than) costs for comparable island ferry routes, such as those in Casco Bay.”

State Sen. Dave Miramant, D-Camden, represents Matinicus, North Haven and Vinalhaven. He also serves on the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation. He said Maine DOT considered Casco Bay rates for comparison, and said, “Our rates were way low.”

According to information on the Casco Bay Lines website, off-peak rates for a vehicle and passenger to Peaks Island are $36.65 for a round-trip, and to “downbay” islands, $88.65, one-way. Downbay islands include Great Diamond Island, Long Island, Chebeague Island and Cliff Island. Peak season rates, between April 14 and Oct. 8, are $62.65 for a round-trip to Peaks Island; and $122.65 for a one-way ticket downbay.

Round-trip passenger rates on Casco Bay Lines are based on the destination and range from $7.70 to $11.55 for adults, compared to the $11 flat rate in the Midcoast. Passenger rates previously varied here, based on where the ticket was purchased. Island tickets to the mainland were less expensive but now have all been changed to the flat fee.

As well, the new rates under Tariff No. 8 for the Penobscot Bay islands of Vinalhaven, North Haven, Swan’s Island, Frenchboro, Islesboro and Matinicus are $30 for a vehicle and driver.

But, Miramant said, the 18-month process “was a real good give and take.”

“There’s a big incentive to keep things fair,” he said. “We definitely want the islanders to feel they have part of the highway, the marine highway.”

He said many options were considered by Maine DOT before the final flat-rate structure was approved.

“We felt like we had not left any options un-aired,” Miramant said. “ … It seemed a very thorough process.”

He noted islanders he represents reached out early and often as Maine DOT considered rate increase options to offset a projected budget shortfall.

“North Haven and Vinalhaven are right there with wanting what’s best,” he said, adding island students offered proposals backed up with data as well. “It’s still an island so they have things they have to deal with but they have the frequency and convenience on Islesboro. … It’s probably more fair than it feels.”

Later, he added, “I have friends on Islesboro and I don’t want them to be harmed.”

Miramant said since the new rates went into effect May 21, he’s heard little from his island constituents.

Maine House Rep. Owen Casas, I-Rockport, also represents Islesboro but offered a different point of view. In an opinion piece to local media, Casas said the rate increase “disproportionately, and negatively, affect(s) Islesboro more than other islands.” He said all islanders expected an increase and while the idea was not received with enthusiasm, most were ready to shell out more money to the ferry service. Casas said he was “quite taken aback” to learn of the flat-rate structure.

“When MDOT held public hearings on the islands, which I greatly appreciate, the proposals discussed had been vetted through the Ferry Advisory Board, with their recommendation being either different rates for in-state and out-of-state residents or across-the-board increases for all tickets,” Casas wrote. “Because of this, the public hearings were centered primarily on these two options. … No public hearing was had on a flat-rate structure of this magnitude. No public comment was taken by MDOT on this ‘final’ structure. No input from Islesboro could have been gathered on this structure because it was never discussed.”

Casas said he "wholeheartedly" supports Islesboro's position that the rates will have a negative impact and change the commuter nature of the island.

While there was no public hearing on the flat-rate structure approved by Maine DOT, Vinalhaven Town Manager Andrew Dorr — also a member of the Ferry Service Advisory Committee — said it was included in an overview of options presented by Maine DOT early on. That option was not recommended by the Ferry Service Advisory Board, Dorr noted.

“I feel as though the (18-month) process was pretty open,” he said. “ … There was a lot of time taken to make sure input was heard.”

One of the first options recommended by the Ferry Service Advisory Board proposed different rates based on residency — year-round islanders would have paid less than seasonal residents.

"That wasn't received well," Dorr said.

Based on the negative feedback from public hearings in January and February on Vinalhaven, Islesboro and Swan's Island, changes were made. In a "recommended decision" from Maine DOT announcing the flat-rate structure, attorney James Billings wrote, "Based on the public input, all were in agreement that the resident/nonresident fee structure should be abandoned. Also there was general agreement to greatly simplify the fare structure by having one rate for any trip that can be used on any ferry. There is some concern that this places a large portion of the increase on Islesboro ... Even after increasing rates to equalize across the service, Islesboro's rates remain in line with other rates for similar service on Casco Bay (for example, Peaks Island when the extra charges for baggage are included."

But, Dorr said, Vinalhaven did not escape unscathed by the rate increases. The reservation fee — a spot can be reserved up to 30 days in advance, if the ferry is running — nearly doubled for Vinalhaven, to $15.

The  reservation fee also will negatively impact residents on Swan’s Island and Frenchboro, The Ellsworth American reported in April. Officials in those two towns say older islanders on fixed incomes need reservations to get to appointments on the mainland, especially in the summer months, which could be a hardship with the higher cost.

Islesboro’s lawsuit does not mention problems with the reservation fee but does seek to review the final agency action by Maine DOT in approving the flat rates. It states the rate increase “is also irrational in that all ferry users are being charged a high, flat fee regardless of whether the user is taking a short, 3-mile trip or a long 23-mile excursion.” Islesboro lies 3 miles from the Lincolnville ferry terminal; Matinicus is more than 20 miles from the Rockland ferry terminal.

The complaint asks the court to declare the new rate structure void as well as declare it “illegal taxation without representation” and require Maine DOT to follow the Administrative Procedure Act to approve new ferry rates.

Islesboro unsuccessfully petitioned Maine DOT to delay implementation of the rates, which were announced April 23 and effective May 21. In its request, the island sought a 90-day stay in the new rates, citing “irreparable injury” to residents.

However, Maine DOT’s chief counsel denied the stay and in his response to the town said, “This is a classic case for money damages rather than injunctive relief: If you are successful on appeal, anyone who has overpaid for a ticket could be refunded any difference in fare. It seems highly unlikely that anyone on Islesboro is going to undergo irreparable injury for paying a few dollars more per ferry ticket while this case is pending for a matter of months.”

Comments (1)
Posted by: REBECCA SCHNUR | Jun 12, 2018 09:36

Sen. Dave Miramant hasn't heard from his constituents because their ferry fees didn't double overnight.  Furthermore, they don't have the number of daily commuters going to and from their islands that Islesboro has. 

And I don't know what he is talking about regarding the Casco Bay ferry line.  That ferry line charges based on the length of the trip.   An adult ticket off-season to Peaks Island, which is comparable to the length of time a trip to Islesboro takes, is $4.10--less than half of what the new passenger rate to Islesboro is. 

Additionally, frequent commuters can get a discounted rate on the Casco line, which is a PRIVATE line dedicated to making a profit.



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Stephanie Grinnell
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Stephanie is editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. She previously served as editor of Camden Herald following its return in April 2012.

Stephanie also was editor of VillageSoup's Capital Weekly in Augusta and has nearly a decade of experience in the newspaper business ranging from southern and central Maine to Waldo County.

Outside the office, she enjoys reading, cooking and gardening.

Stephanie lives in Washington with her husband Jeff, four children, a dog named Chewbacca, a rabbit and chickens.

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