May 28, 2018
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Revised Maine ferry service fee hike infuriates some islanders

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
File photo of a car carrying mail to Frenchboro driving on to the Captain Henry Lee, a Maine State Ferry boat.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Updated:

The Maine State Ferry Service unveiled its first fare hike in nine years Tuesday, but locals on one island in particular are fuming over a more than 100 percent increase in their cost of getting to the mainland.

Under the new rate structure, which goes into effect May 21, there is one standard price for a ferry ticket across the entire system — $11 for a round-trip adult ticket, $5.50 for a child, and $30 for a person with a vehicle.

With new rate structure, an adult resident on Islesboro who today pays $5.50 for a ferry ticket will now pay nearly double — $11. If they have a car, that cost increases from $13.75 to $30.

“We are furious,” said Tori Coombs, an Islesboro resident for the past 33 years. She takes her car on the ferry to Lincolnville every morning, then drives to work in Camden. The cost of her commute will increase 118 percent.

“If I commute daily, that works out to a $4,000 increase out of my pay,” Coombs said Wednesday. She said locals worry that the increased cost will keep families from moving to the island.

“I don’t mind a rate increase, but not over 100 percent,” she added.

Islesboro residents have been calling the governor’s office and MDOT to rail against the new rate structure since Tuesday’s announcement. The community Facebook page is consumed by complaints and anger, including some semi-serious calls to build a bridge across Penobscot Bay.

Islesboro residents argue their rate should be less than other islands because their ferry trip is the shortest and most heavily used, accounting for the bulk of ferry service rides.

The cost of taking personal vehicles from Vinalhaven, North Haven and Swans Island will drop from $49.50 to $30 for non-residents, while locals will see their vehicle fares increase by $2.75.

Matinicus, the most remote of the islands, will see its round-trip fare drop from $33 to $11. The cost of bringing a car will drop from $86 to $30.

Under the current rate system, each ferry route has its own rate structure. Tickets can be purchased on islands at a discounted rate, but people who buy the tickets on the mainland pay full price. The idea behind the rate restructuring was to ease the financial burden of the islands’ year-round residents, especially those who make frequent if not daily trips to the mainland.

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.

There’s been little disagreement over the need for an increase, but the yearlong debate over how to implement it has been contentious.

The state says the current system is overcomplicated and held the ferry service back from using new technology, such as online sales and improved data collection. Ferry service officials say the use of technology and flat rate will improve customer service across the system.

Maine taxpayers pay about half the operating costs of the ferry service through taxes, the rest is generated through fares and fees.

Jennifer Smith, community relations director for the ferry service, argued that the ferry service should be treated like any other public transportation service. She compared it to plowing. Aroostook County residents don’t pay any more for that service than people in counties with less road mileage to plow.

Previous iterations of the rate hike proposed different fees for Mainers and out-of-staters, but some communities pushed back, arguing that would be unfair to taxpayers who own property on the islands but don’t live there year-round.

“The new flat-rate ticket structure will create a straightforward pricing system that will immediately simplify operations,” ferry service Manager Mark Higgins said Tuesday. “Once this pricing structure is in place, we will look to implement new technologies to better serve our customers.”

One of the biggest factors in the state’s decision to go with a single flat rate was the desire to keep down truck rates, a per-foot fee paid by companies or individuals bringing heavy trucks onto the ferries.

Under other proposals the state considered, the truck rates would have increased across most islands. The new proposal would put the truck rate at $2.50 per foot, a decrease on all islands except for Islesboro, which currently has a $1.75 truck rate.

The fee for Matinicus was $6.75 per foot. The ferry service said that will keep down the costs of doing business on the islands, and prevent businessowners from having to bump up the prices of their goods.

Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said in a news release that the new structure “[treats] all users equitably by eliminating the antiquated and geographically discriminatory rate pricing that currently differs from island to island and mainland to mainland.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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