Why Maine islanders are feeling hopeful about their ferry fee plight

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
ISLESBORO, MAINE -- 06/17/2016 -- A ferry in Penobscot Bay carrying vehicles and passengers from Islesboro to Lincolnville. Gabor Degre | BDN
This time around, there is a new governor, a new DOT commissioner and a sense among islanders — at least at the moment — that state officials want to work with them.
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A year after the last Maine State Ferry Service rate hike went into effect, Islesboro residents and others loudly spoke out Wednesday morning against the Maine Department of Transportation’s proposal for another one.

Wednesday’s public hearing at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast, like one held last November, featured impassioned comments from many folks who are distressed by and fed up with the 2018 rate hike, which caused their ticket prices to more than double.

But it also included some words that weren’t said at last year’s public hearing, which was full of dire warnings about how the rate hike could destroy the Islesboro community. Wednesday’s hearing was sprinkled with words like “cautiously optimistic,” “this is refreshing” and “thanks for coming.”

Those words were said because islanders are hopeful that things are different than they were last year. At that time, the rate hike was presented more like a fait accompli than a conversation. But this time around, there is a new governor, a new DOT commissioner and a sense among islanders — at least at the moment — that state officials want to work with them.

[Maine islanders tell new transportation chief that ferry rate hike threatens their way of life]

“We welcome a new perspective and look forward to working with you,” Islesboro Selectman Gabe Pendleton said.

He and others shared their ideas for different solutions with Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note. Pendleton suggested switching to electric boats, a move that he said cut costs for a ferry line in Norway by about 80 percent. Others in the crowd said that island representatives would be willing to work more closely with the DOT in regards to funding the ferry service.

“We’ve got to find another way to fund our marine highway,” Phil Seymour, another Islesboro selectman said. “Islanders are a resilient group of people, but there are opportunities that cannot be provided on the island.”

The hearing took place in response to a new proposal that Maine State Ferry Service tickets increase by as much as 20 percent, over and above the changes implemented last year. The proposed rates are a flat-rate structure, meaning the same rates will apply to all islands served by the system.

State officials have said the rate increase is needed to avoid a budget shortfall caused by decreased ticket sales and rising costs. If the new rates are accepted as proposed, it would mean that a round-trip ticket price for an adult would increase from $11 to $13; a round-trip ticket for a child would increase from $5.50 to $6.50 and a round-trip ticket for an adult with a car would be $35, up from $30.

But Van Note said he would be “shocked” if it was the final proposal, which will likely be put forth in September.

“My goal on this is to take a fresh look,” Van Note said Wednesday. “We are looking at a variety of things.”

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Ideas he mentioned at the hearing include modernizing the ferry service’s ticket system, a suggestion that drew applause from the people at the hearing, as well as considering commuter rates and seasonal ticket rates that rise during tourist season. According to state law, the Maine State Ferry Service has to collect at least 50 percent of its operating costs from user fees, with the remaining portion of the cost subsidized by Maine residents through the highway fund. Last year, the DOT said that its projected 2020 operating budget for the ferry service was $11 million.

The Islesboro residents who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing were clear that balancing the budget on their ferry tickets was unsustainable. In fact, during the past year, island residents have sued the DOT, alleging the department did not follow the proper rulemaking process when it implemented the rate structure. In response to the lawsuit, the DOT renewed the rulemaking process last fall to set the rates.

But that hasn’t been enough, according to lawmakers such as Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, who said it has been a long year for her constituents who live on, work on or are otherwise connected to Islesboro.

“They feel like they’ve been fighting this for a really long time now, and they want it to be resolved,” she said. “Each day this rate remains unresolved, our entire region bears the burden of a decision that was made more than a year ago.”

Bill Kelly, an attorney from Islesboro who serves on the school board, suggested that the problem funding the ferry service might require a solution from the Legislature, not the department.

“I feel a little bit like we’re chasing our tail until the statute gets fixed,” he said. “This is a legislative issue as well as an economic issue. It’s not really a transportation issue.”


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