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Islanders turn out for hearing on ferry rates

By Stephanie Grinnell | Nov 28, 2018
Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell A public hearing about ferry rates to six Midcoast islands fills a room at UMaine's Hutchinson Center in Belfast.

Belfast — Most of the more than 150 people at a public hearing Nov. 28 expressed displeasure about changes to the Maine State Ferry Service rate structure.

The only person to speak positively about the change was Frenchboro resident Duncan Bond, who also is a member of the Ferry Service Advisory Board.

"We, of course, are pleased with the new structure," he said, noting Frenchboro saw decreased fares. "I know it's different for Islesboro. (But) I've talked to everyone on Frenchboro — they like it."

The public hearing at University of Maine Hutchinson Center came about in response to a lawsuit filed by residents of Islesboro, who objected to the method used to set the new fare rates known as Tariff No. 8. A court found the islanders were likely to be successful in proving the Maine Department of Transportation, which oversees Maine State Ferry Service, is required to use a rulemaking process rather than an adjudicatory one.

Maine State Ferry Service attorney James Billings served as hearing officer and explained funding of the ferry service is supposed to be split 50/50 between state funding from the Highway Department and revenue raised by the ferry service.

A projected budget shortfall led to discussions of a rate increase starting more than a year ago. After public hearings and several changes to the plan, early in May a flat-rate fee structure for six islands in Penobscot Bay was approved. The highest increase hit Islesboro, which saw more than double rates for a passenger and vehicle. The rates went into effect May 21 and remain in place.

During the public hearing, a number of Islesboro residents pointed to decreased ridership since the new fares were implemented. According to numbers provided by Maine DOT, June passenger ridership fell by nearly 4,000 from the previous year on Islesboro. In July, there were more than 3,500 fewer passengers than in the prior year, August passenger numbers dropped by more than 2,600 year over year, and September brought a decrease of more than 3,000 passengers from 2017 on Islesboro.

Maine Ferry Service Manager Mark Higgins drew noises of disbelief with his opening statement: "The current system ... is working." He went on to explain the funding source distribution and said under the previous tariff the islands provided less than 27 percent of the overall budget total, leaving the state to pick up more than 70 percent of the $15.3 million per year average tab.

If the ferry service is unable to increase its revenue to the 50-percent level, Higgins said, the only other option is to alter the level of service, which would probably mean fewer trips between island and mainland terminals and possibly other changes.

He spoke to another controversial aspect of Tariff No. 8 as well: a proposed temporary surcharge the ferry service could implement with 21 days' notice if ridership decreased or costs increased.

"It's important for the Department (of Transportation) to act quickly," Higgins said.

The surcharge was criticized even by residents who support the fare increase, including representatives from North Haven and Vinalhaven.

Islanders urged Maine DOT to conduct an audit of Maine State Ferry Service as well, with several stating the ferry service was unable to pinpoint the actual operating costs. Islesboro Selectman Gabe Pendleton indicated a blanket increase to make all of the ticket prices the same is not needed.

"There's no need to oversimplify" the process, he said, because of future technological plans. Pendleton, to the delight of the high school and eighth-grade students in attendance who applauded his comparison, pointed to ticket sale websites as existing technology that can pinpoint exactly what the purchaser wants, down to the particular seat at a venue.

As well, Pendleton said, basing future ridership revenue on increased numbers is not realistic with the increased price of fares. He said every month since Tariff No. 8 was approved, ridership to Islesboro has decreased. Pendleton said the Island Institute, which does not represent any particular island, projected a 15-percent drop in Islesboro fares would put the ferry service in the same position of needing more revenue to offset its budget shortfall.

"Every islander here is willing to work with you to get this right for all the islands," he said as the audience applauded.

Other speakers addressed the islands' elderly population, many of whom rely on the ferry to get to medical appointments on the mainland, and urged the ferry service to reconsider the flat-rate structure.

Several speakers, including state Rep.-elect Vicki Doudera of Camden, who will represent Islesboro, called the rates "punishment" for living on the island closest to the mainland.

Construction company owner Paul Hatch compared the cost for two of his trucks to make two trips. Before the increase, he paid $230 per day and after, $344, he said. Yearly, he already was paying $66,240 for the same two trucks and two trips, but with the increase, he will shell out $99,072 per year on ferry tolls alone, he said.

Other speakers offered suggestions on how to improve the rate-setting process, including John Mitchell. He admits it would take legislative action, but suggested increasing the state's contribution to the ferry service to more than 50 percent, as well as building in regular fare increases.

Several speakers drew boisterous responses from the audience, including one Islesboro resident who is now referred to as "Boycott Becky" because she no longer rides the ferry, and Appleton resident Will Neils. Rebecca "Boycott Becky" Schnur offered insight into island life and suggested anyone involved in setting future rates should be required to live on an island for at least nine months before making a decision on rate changes. Neils spoke about the transparency of the process and rural gentrification. As well, John Oldham received applause for his comments about different points of view from the island and the mainland.

"We see a lifeline and you see a golden goose," he said.

Toward the end of the nearly two-and-half-hour meeting, Islesboro resident Nancy Alexander expressed disappointment that only Billings and Higgins were in attendance. Billings noted other staff members were present, but declined to identify them initially.

The crowd began shouting for any Maine DOT personnel to stand, but when one man did, he was criticized for smiling: "This is not a joke, it's our lives," an audience member said.

Billings also declined to present a summary of what he'd heard during the hearing.

"I'm not going to attempt to summarize two and a half hours of comment," he said, adding the court reporter present would create a transcript.

Comments on the rate structure of being accepted until Dec. 12. Written comments should be emailed to, or mailed to James Billings, Legal Division, Maine Department of Transportation, 16 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.

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Comments (3)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Nov 29, 2018 14:47

Whew!!! A lot of thought went into this dissertation. Thoughtful and informative for sure. I commend the populous of the Island and wish they would have a cost effective transport. If not, sadly, they could move and find secure neighborhoods which would be glad to have them and their taxes.

Posted by: Francis Mazzeo, Jr. | Nov 29, 2018 09:03

Life can be boring.

Posted by: George Terrien | Nov 29, 2018 08:14

Are we not missing a point here, or at least consideration of equity in the provision of services?

What I mean here is that thinking of a ferry boat as just a bit of mobile highway would be more even-handed than the various mechanisms and analyses referenced in the article, and, apparently, by many attendants at the hearing, and with little doubt, among all those who inhabit the islands, and use the ferry.

So, if a ferry is but a short section of mobile highway (with stringent rules for short-term parking, of course), why should people using this section of roadway pay any more than those using other sections of state or municipal highways? (Let's leave the Grand Duchy of the Maine Turnpike out of this consideration for now.)  If everyone is charged the same for general road use through gasoline taxes, real estate taxes for municipal services, and all those other taxes that go into the general funds and mechanisms for appropriations at both the state and federal levels, no one would be penalized for living on an island and driving on and off it from time to time.

If the issue is that this bit of mobile pavement passes over water, then perhaps we should set up a statewide EZpass system for every bridge and culvert in the state, levying a fair use surcharge for transportation across each bit of wetness.

Alternatively, if the distinction really is one of intensity of use, why not relieve proportionately the cost of highway construction and maintenance of the residents of the northern tier of counties whose use of highways per vehicular mile is much less than that of the southern counties?  Aroostook, Somerset, etc., are you listening?

Or, if the distinction were to be calculated on miles, or journeys, or use per vehicle, or resident, or ton, then load the disproportionately large cost upon each vehicle or resident or passenger or ton, etc.?

What have we come to, in this, our fair state?

I say: if we want people to live in existing communities on islands in Maine, than provide free passage for each use of a transportation system needed to sustain economic life.  Otherwise, be honest about our fiscal greed, and depopulate those islands and transform them into some combination of wildlife refuge for our natural neighbors, and of estate ownership by the wealthy for our privileged inhabitants who can afford to provide their own transportation.

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