Maine’s ferry service is poised to increase rates for the first time in nearly a decade, but some islanders worry the new system will create gridlock on the docks and that summer residents will get a raw deal.
The Maine State Ferry Service, under the umbrella of the Maine Department of Transportation, runs ferries between mainland docks and the islands of North Haven, Vinalhaven, Islesboro, Matinicus, Swan’s Island and Frenchboro. The service hasn’t increased its rates since 2009, and says it needs to bump up fares to avoid a projected operating budget shortfall in 2020.
Under the current rate system, tickets can be purchased on islands at a discounted rate, but people who buy the tickets on the mainland pay full price. The idea was to ease the financial burden of the islands’ year-round residents, especially those who make frequent if not daily trips to the mainland.
But that system has presented several problems, according to Mark Higgins, manager of the state ferry service.
Even in peak summer months, about 80 percent of ticket sales happen at island terminals, where they sell for nearly half price, Higgins said. Many off-island residents discovered the discount, and have abused its intent.
“Misuse of the current pricing structure results in lost revenue for the [ferry service] and increased costs for all users,” Higgins wrote in an email, adding that the current system has been confusing for inexperienced passengers, and also prevents the state from launching online ticketing.
Under the new proposal, there would be one flat rate regardless of where the ticket is purchased, but Mainers who show their Maine driver’s license or another form of state ID at the terminal would receive a discount.
Rates vary from island to island, and fees are added for people who bring cars, trucks or bicycles on the ferry. For the ferry from Lincolnville to Islesboro — the most heavily used route — a current ticket for a person costs $10 on the mainland or $5.50 on the island. If the proposed changes are implemented, the island discounts would be scrapped entirely. Mainers looking to hop on the Islesboro ferry would pay $7 round trip, while out-of-staters would pay $14.
The existing fare system also prevents the ferry service from taking advantage of technologies that are now commonplace across public transportation, such as automated kiosks, online ticket sales, and the ability to scan tickets on mobile devices.
Ferry service officials have been visiting the islands and on-shore communities to pitch the proposed increases since last month, and continue to work to hit every destination. By ditching the on-island discounts and increasing rates across the board, they expect to raise about $740,000 in additional revenue per year, shoring up future budgets.
On the islands, community leaders say they understand the need for a rate hike after nearly a decade of stagnancy, but some argue the hikes aren’t being levied fairly.
The Islesboro Select Board recently sent a letter to state officials, asking for a delay in the rate change. They argued that Isleboro’s ferry generates enough revenue to cover 66 percent of its costs, a return significantly higher than other ferries in the fleet. The increase to its fares, however, is disproportionately high, they argued.
The board also argued having two rates available at all terminals will cause “confusion and frustration during the ticketing and boarding process.”
“There will be many times when Maine residents forget IDs and will be very frustrated to have to pay the increased rate,” the board wrote, adding that it would be easy for out-of-staters to “game the system” by having in-state friends buy their tickets or by hopping in a car as a resident’s passenger.
“The most equitable plan would be to increase rates across the board for all tickets on all islands by the percentage needed to meet the budget shortfall,” Islesboro’s board argued.
Vinalhaven officials sent their own letter expressing concerns about the added strain on the terminal and its workers, who would now be required to check IDs to see who should pay the Maine rate and who should not.
“The level of stress at the ferry terminal in Rockland is already very high,” they wrote. “The demands on the terminal personnel and line attendants are considerable.”
The ferry service aims to launch the new system in late March or early April, so it has time to resolve problems before the busy summer season.
Sonny Sprague, chairman of Swan’s Island’s selectboard and a member of the ferry service’s advisory board, said the plan unfairly targets the island’s summer residents who own property and pay taxes, but don’t call Maine home all year. About half the island’s taxpayers are out-of-state residents, he said.
“It treats our out-of-state taxpayers as if they’re outsiders, and they’re not,” Sprague said Thursday. “We want a fair increase for everyone involved.”
The ferry service argues Maine residents already pay to keep the ferries running via a year-round gas tax, according to Higgins. Those tax dollars get pumped into the Maine Highway Fund.
By law, half of all the ferry service costs have to be paid for through fares and fees, while the service can dip into the Highway Fund for the rest of its revenue. In that way, Mainers are already subsidizing the ferries, and deserve a discounted ticket rate, he said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.
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