Islesboro resident Maggy Willcox lives just a few miles from her 3-month-old granddaughter and would love to visit her often.
But Willcox, the publisher of the Islesboro Island News, has two big obstacles that stand between her and the baby. One is the 3-mile stretch of Penobscot Bay that separates Islesboro from the mainland, and the other is the 100 percent ferry rate increase that the Maine State Ferry Service imposed on islanders last May.
Now, every time she heads off the island, Willcox has to keep in mind the $30 it costs to make a round trip ride on the car ferry. It’s an expense that curtails the numbers of trips she can make.
“I manage once a week,” she said, adding that these days she mentally adds $30 to the cost of anything she would like to do off island. “Those are all considerations I didn’t make before. That’s been a big change.”
According to Islesboro residents, just about everyone who lives or works on the island has had to make the same big change after the ferry service’s new flat rate structure went into effect last year.
Residents of Frenchboro, Swan’s Island, Matinicus, North Haven and Vinalhaven found that their ticket prices either stayed mostly the same or, in some cases, decreased. But on Islesboro, the island located closest to the mainland, round-trip ticket prices jumped from $13.75 for a car and $5.50 for a passenger to $30 for a car and $11 for a passenger.
Islanders have let the Maine Department of Transportation, which runs the Maine State Ferry Service, know how unhappy they are with the rate hike. More than 30 people spoke at a November public hearing on the matter, with only one Frenchboro resident speaking in favor of the rate change. Also, 91 written comments have been submitted to the department, Maine DOT spokesman Ted Talbot said.
A lawsuit filed against the department by Islesboro residents was put on hold last fall until either the DOT completed the appropriate rulemaking process, or Jan. 1, 2019, whichever came first.
This week, department officials said that, despite the stated deadline, the lawsuit remains on hold until March 1, pending finalization of the rulemaking process.
Existential issue for the island
Meanwhile, the increased ticket prices have continued to make life hard for Islesboro residents, Selectman Gabe Pendleton said.
“We’re dealing with it the best we can,” he said. “It’s one of the core issues on the island. It’s one of the existential issues of an island community.”
About 600 to 700 people live on Islesboro year round. In the summer, that figure balloons to several thousand. While some summer residents are wealthy, most 12-month islanders say they are average Mainers who cannot easily absorb the steep price increase.
That’s the case for Rhoda Watson, an Islesboro resident who works at the Island Market and cleans houses. When their oldest son is home, the Watsons are a family of six, and the cost zoomed from about $30 for the family to go off-island for the day to $80.
“It affected my family a lot,” she said. “My husband has had to pick up more work. I’ve had to pick up more work, and we’ve significantly limited trips off island.”
In the past four months, she and her children left Islesboro only a handful of times. The family shops for groceries once every two to three weeks and has to budget everything. They are buying essentials such as toilet paper and cat food through Amazon and did a lot of their Christmas shopping online, which isn’t what they usually do.
Watson loves the island she calls home, but the increase has been a challenge.
“It’s a fantastic community. It really is,” she said. “But with them hiking those ferry rates it puts a damper on everybody. It’s completely unfair.”
‘Willing to step up’
Pendleton said that many islanders have been reaching out, through social media or other avenues, to tell their neighbors when they are going to the mainland and offer to pick up things such as prescriptions, groceries and car parts.
“Everybody is really willing to step up,” he said.
Islesboro officials are brainstorming long-term solutions, such as the island running its own car ferry or having the town purchase property on the mainland so islanders can leave cars there.
“There are people who are investigating all different avenues,” Pendleton said, adding that one thing he would like to see happen soon is an audit of the Maine State Ferry Service.
He said that when Islesboro selectmen first learned about the rate increase, they wanted to find out what it costs to actually run the ferry. That information was not easy to get. The Maine State Ferry Service did not have cost breakdowns according to a particular boat, or a particular route, but could only show the cost of running the entire service.
“We pushed back,” Pendleton said. “It’s hard to look at what’s a fair and reasonable rate structure when we don’t have that breakdown.”
He’s hoping that the Maine DOT and the Maine State Ferry Service will make changes under the administration of Gov. Janet Mills that include keeping better records and being able to find creative solutions to the problem of high costs.
“We can sit down and have a conversation about what’s fair and reasonable for all the islands,” Pendleton said. “It’s hard to do a one-size-fits-all approach.”
BDN writer Lauren Abbate contributed to this report.