Islesboro upset

Residents say devastating rate changes could cripple island
By Stephanie Grinnell | May 10, 2018
Source: maine.gov Lincolnville Beach terminal of the Islesboro Ferry.

Islesboro residents are painting a grim picture of the future of the commuter island community following the unexpected flat-rate increase in ferry fees approved by Maine Department of Transportation.

While an increase in some form was expected, the approved rates represent a 118-percent jump in the cost of round-trip tickets for a vehicle and driver, residents say, which could lead to an exodus of year-round residents.

Maine State Ferry Service, which falls under Maine DOT oversight, has been considering increased rates for some time to offset a projected budget shortfall. Its original proposal to increase the rates to Penobscot Bay islands would have charged different rates based on residency; however, following public outcry, the DOT reconsidered and approved a flat-rate increase to begin May 21.

In the time since the flat-rate structure was announced, Islesboro residents have been raising concerns about the impact on their community, including Selectman Gabe Pendleton. He said there were hearings on the original proposal but the first time the flat-rate increases came to light was after approval by DOT.

"I think they have succeeded in the most simple way to charge fees," Pendleton said, adding it seems all other public comments about the original proposal were ignored. Islanders earlier this year suggested an across-the-board percentage increase to existing ticket prices to offset the budget shortfall.

He said a local passenger boat — once a more expensive way to commute to the mainland — will run alongside the ferry for the time being to offer residents an alternative.

“Every option is on the table,” he said in a phone interview May 4. “(Selectmen) are certainly having broad conversations. We’re trying to make a good decision for the town.”

Pendleton said the ferry service’s prior claims that the Islesboro ferry is subsidized by allowing students to commute at no charge no longer apply. The new rate structure — called a tariff — allows all of the other island ferries to transport students at no charge, he said.

“So it’s not true only Islesboro does that,” Pendleton said.

The selectman said the bulk of the increase falls on Islesboro and is based on a projected increase in ridership, which Pendleton said he thinks may be overly optimistic. He objected to the short time frame — a month — given by Maine DOT until the rates are effective and said that doesn’t give residents adequate time to plan ahead for increased ferry rates as well as heating oil for winter.

“I anticipate a legal challenge to DOT on the rates,” Pendleton said.

He noted all island communities share similar problems and challenges, but said if Islesboro rates are decreased, the fees charged to other islands will go up, which is causing divisions with other island communities. The ferry service also services Vinalhaven, North Haven, Swans Island, Frenchboro and Matinicus.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t Islesboro residents who are going to be affected by this,” Pendleton said.

Nearly a dozen other Islesboro residents — or those who hope to be — reached out following a request disseminated via Islesboro Island News on behalf of The Republican Journal to outline problems the rate increase could cause and fallout from media reports of threats against ferry service staff.

Maine DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt sent a letter to Islesboro Town Manager Janet Anderson threatening to shut down service to the island based on perceived threats against workers. Resident David Mahan said when he heard about the threats, he wondered what kind of person would take out their frustrations on workers who are not at fault.

“It turns out, it may have been me,” he wrote in an email to The Journal. “A few days ago, I jokingly asked if they gave you guys bulletproof vests and stated that people are angry about the ferry situation and I hoped they weren’t taking it out on the ferry crew. I was trying to convey my support for the crew, as they work very hard and have to put up with a lot of grief quite often. I hoped they were not being verbally abused, as they are obviously not part of the decision-making process. My words were apparently greatly misinterpreted and for that, I sincerely apologize.”

Mahan said he believes there were no legitimate threats made and said he would have liked to see Bernhardt proceed “with a little more caution before issuing his inflammatory threat to shut our ferry down.” Several other residents also defended islanders and said no threats were made. Apologies were offered immediately for any misunderstandings, residents say, and the issue has been resolved.

Other residents shared stories of hoping to retire to Islesboro, or move there to be closer to family. Ann Charlton said she and her husband hope to move to the island where she spent childhood summers and can trace ancestors.

“When I heard of the 118-percent increase in ferry prices for Islesboro residents I was shocked and deeply saddened,” she wrote in an email to Maine DOT Legislative Liaison Meghan Russo. “If the ferry rates rise that amount we will not be able to move to Islesboro. My husband still works and was planning on commuting to work in the Portland area. We love the island so much that we are willing to find a way to make it work even with such a long commute. An increase in fares that is so high would make our dream impossible.”

Charlton said she is disabled and must take a car each time she leaves the island, so the availability of the ferry is paramount.

“Our story is one example of how a town with less than 700 year-round residents will have two less next year if the rate hike takes place as planned,” she said.

Ellen Berry of Camden hopes to move to the island to be with her son and his wife, who are expecting their first child. In the meantime, she travels on the ferry at least three times per week, sometimes four, at an average cost of $40.50. As of May 21, with the increase, it will cost her $90 per week, she said.

“I have no ability or finances to change my expenses that much,” Berry said.

She compared use of the ferry service to traveling toll roads — “the farther I go, the more it costs. (But) May 21, I will be able to take an hour and 45-minute ferry ride to North Haven for the same price as Islesboro’s 15-minute ride.”

Jan Davidson focused on the commuter nature of the island and said her husband has commuted to work on Islesboro for 15 years. She said they hope to move to the island when she retires but said “the most paranoid pessimist would not have included in their retirement planning a 120-percent fare increase, levied without warning, on a commuter island.” Davidson said affordable access to the mainland is important to complete “all the chores of a normal life.”

“We treasure the community we have built here and know that we are fortunate to live here,” she said. “But if our link to the mainland is severed, we will surely disappear.”

Businesses on the island, too, will be negatively impacted by the rate hike, Diana Roberts said. Her husband Stanley Pendleton owns Pendleton Yacht Yard, one of the island’s largest employers.

“So how do we use the ferry? Vigorously. It’s our lifeblood,” Roberts said. “A majority of our workers commute.”

In addition, she noted, the business shuttles trucks and trailered boats, and freight, as well as making supply trips for parts, canvas and other things on a regular basis. The need cannot be met by Penobscot Air Freight alone, Roberts said. On a personal note, she said quick supply trips are taken for granted by those who live on the mainland.

“You run out of milk or baby formula or Pampers, so you run out and get what you need,” Roberts said. “We don’t have that option. We need the same things you need. We already stock up on our weekly errand trips as if the Apocalypse were nigh, so don’t tell us to buy two of everything and prepare to go off-island less.

“These proposed rates will sabotage our island community. It’s challenging enough to live on an island; you guys are making it impossible.”

Landscape business owner Sue Hatch pointed out many of the residents who live on the island are tradespeople and laborers, not the wealthy elite as is sometimes perceived.

“We are very blessed to have a wealthy summer population who are generous in their support of the community, but by no means are the working people here wealthy,” she said. “Plenty of people just get by, just like they do on the other islands and in much of Maine.”

Proximity to the mainland is a benefit and a consideration for many who move to Islesboro, Hatch said, adding the 3-mile ferry ride allows island residents to contribute to the mainland economy in Belfast, Camden and Rockland. With the increase, islanders may choose to stay home instead and simply do without the basic services that are easily accessible on the mainland.

“Our community has been working hard to attract young working families who can work here, attend our excellent school and be members of our otherwise aging population,” Hatch said. “This rate increase has pulled the rug out from (under) all of these efforts to preserve the heart of our town, which is its working families.”

Becky Bolduc and her husband both teach at Islesboro Central School and have children in the preschool program. She said they recently purchased an island home but often are required to leave the island for pediatrician appointments and fresh groceries. The mainland also offers enrichment activities for children such as museums, libraries and parks, Bolduc said.

“I also fear for the sustainability of the entire school,” she said, adding many teachers commute from the mainland. “These prices are not for a commuter island, which Islesboro very much relies on. This will shut down everything good about our island.”

Susan Schnur said an initial proposed increase seemed reasonable but the approved rates are not.

“What is really upsetting is that we have done all the right things to keep young people on the island,” she said. “Instead of closing the school when the number of students went down, we remodeled and became a magnet school using a combination of donated funds and a bond issue.”

Additionally, Schnur said, the community includes a community center with gift shop, kitchens and gym, a home for the injured or elderly that allows them to remain on the island and receive care, fiber-optic broadband internet access, a preschool, summer recreational programs and affordable housing.

“It has worked,” she said. “Young islanders are returning to the island so their kids can go to school here. … The rest of Maine is losing its young people, but we aren’t.”

With the new rates costing families more, Schnur said it is likely the efforts to attract and retain young families and workers will be lost.

“The population will again start its downward slide,” she said. “Retirees won’t come, because as age increases, so do mainland doctor visits, and the distances required for walking and stair climbing preclude going without a car. The only people who might move here will be wealthy tech workers. Our taxes will have to go up at the same time as work opportunities are falling.”

William Meade III said he wonders if Maine DOT understands the lack of amenities on Islesboro, which requires regular travel to the mainland.

“Most year-round residents, especially those with children, do not have the income to afford this increase,” he said. “I predict this will cripple the island, resulting in many families forced to leave and many bank foreclosures. Such an injustice for a 20-minute ride.”

In a letter to Russo, Christine Saastamoinen noted there are grocery stores on the island but goods are more expensive than in mainland stores. Gas, too, is more expensive when purchased on the island, she said, and isn’t available during power outages.

“We understand that the price needs to be increased for the ferry to operate but for the other islands to go down in price and put all of the increases on Islesboro will greatly negatively impact the whole island community of Islesboro and surrounding towns where the islanders do business,” Saastamoinen wrote. “ … We love our home here but don’t have the resources to cover this type of increase.”

Those on a fixed income also can’t afford to pay more to take the ferry, Kenneth Smith said, including himself and his wife, who has lived her whole life on Islesboro. Services provided on-island will become more expensive as well, he said.

“The burden placed on our roughly 600 year-round residents who depend on the ferry for mainland services will be devastating,” Smith said, adding island living already is more expensive. “If the Maine State Ferry Service rates go into effect, we may not be able to continue living on Islesboro, which is the same situation as many of our friends on fixed incomes. The effect on our younger population will undoubtedly cause some to move to the mainland.”

Islesboro residents are not the only ones to contact Maine DOT about the rates. Senate President Michael Thibodeau, who represents Waldo County, mailed a letter to Bernhardt requesting he “consider re-evaluating the rate structure.” Waldo County commissioners on May 7 approved sending a letter supporting Islesboro’s position. Belfast city councilors, too, reached out to Bernhardt with a letter. Councilor Neal Harkness said during a May 1 council meeting that the rate increase will hit mainland businesses as well.

“That’s some people not going to The Colonial to see a movie,” he said, gesturing toward Councilor Mike Hurley, who owns the theater. “ … The community is united in opposition to these fare hikes. This would be devastating.”

The council’s letter pointed out inequity in the rate structure from the “one size fits all mentality.”

“ … (Higher rates) will endanger what little local business they do have and threaten the island with seasonal darkness. As strong as the working families of Islesboro are, they can’t outlast a state that is determined to evict them from their ancestral home. To us, these actions of your department are beyond reason.”

 

Comments (3)
Posted by: REBECCA SCHNUR | May 10, 2018 18:18

William Baxter, Islesboro is 14 miles long. Golf carts would be dangerous, slow and completely impractical. We’re not just sunning ourselves out here.  We have jobs and school.

Many of us do keep a car on the mainland, particularly those of us who commute, but parking is already an issue.  There are many more vehicles than spaces. And most single people can’t afford to maintain two vehicles.

There are many situations that require the use of a vehicle.  Grocery shopping with small children, taking elderly relatives to the doctor (the ferry cabin is up a steep flight of stairs), taking a sick dog to the vet.



Posted by: William A Baxter | May 10, 2018 13:54

While no one should be exposed to huge increases so unexpectedly, I wonder if we should look to where the cost comes from.  I suspect that a big portion of the cost is moving the cars back and forth.  Would it be reasonable to park the cars in Lincolnville and use alternate transportation on the island, such as golf carts on such vehicles?  There are other islands off the coast that have passenger only service and use old cars or such to move around the island.  Just a thought.



Posted by: George Terrien | May 10, 2018 09:47

I do not think any of us would want the cost of ordinary transportation for Islesboro to rise prohibitively.  Perhaps now is tje time to reconsider how we pay for our roads.

I suspect that for many roads and bridges with low traffic, travel per mile on a per passenger and per ton of freight costs the state a great deal for construction, repair, snow plowing, maintenance, etc., while traffic on high volume roads costs substantially less.  Would it be more fair to consider ferry travel just another road?

If we equalized the cost to the user of travel on all routes, would we not support equitable distribution of the cost of living, independent from location, other than would arise from travel per unit of distance from centers of employment, etc.?  Suppose we imposed a state fuel tax on all modes of travel, gasoline, diesel, and electric, calculated on the basis of the cost of ALL road work, divided by the units of energy consumed.  At the same time, we could relieve municipalities of burden for maintaining state-aid and local roads, thus reducing the burden on its tax payers for supporting travel by its non-citizens.  Such financial burden on municipalities already imposes the cost of providing road transportation for through travel, even if it does not benefit the locality.

This proposal might reveal unintended consequences that would sink the idea before it might be launched, but at least we would be trying to address the inequity that exists within our current financing of travel for our citizens.  This inequity becomes obvious when MDOT tries to deal with a localized problem--here, ferry travel to our island communities, equally deserving of access and fair treatment.



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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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