Islesboro residents shocked at ferry ticket increase

By Stephanie Grinnell | Apr 25, 2018

Islesboro residents are reeling after Maine Department of Transportation officials announced that a new, flat-rate fee structure for ferry service to the islands will be implemented May 21.

The new fee structure represents a 118-percent increase for Islesboro residents, who currently can purchase on-island tickets for a vehicle and driver for $13.25, according to Margaret Willcox, editor of Islesboro Island News.

"This is shocking and not an option that was actually discussed in the public meetings held by the MSFS," she wrote in an April 19 email to The Republican Journal. " ... This new tariff has taken folks completely by surprise."

Willcox said Islesboro is a commuter community, without mainland amenities such as a gas station, lumberyard, hardware store, veterinary clinic, bank, insurance company, garden center, laundromat, or entertainment or shopping venues that can be found on other Penobscot Bay islands.

"We all have to commute (off the island) for almost everything," she said. " ... With a median income of $25,000 for the typical year-round island family, it will be impossible for some to continue to live here. People are panicked. It’s heartbreaking."

A "Recommended Decision" authored by James Billings, hearing officer and chief counsel for Maine DOT, noted feedback on the original rate increase was not favorable and addressed the significant increase to Islesboro fares.

“There was not a single person on any of the three separate hearing dates that spoke in favor of the proposal,” Billings wrote. “ … Based on the public input, all were in agreement that the resident/non-resident structure should be abandoned. Also, there was general agreement to greatly simplify the fare structure by having one rate for any trip that can be used on any ferry.

“There was some concern that this places a large portion of the increase on Islesboro, but it was pointed out that: Islesboro receives a subsidy from the ferry service that none of the other communities does; school children from the mainland get free passage back and forth to the charter school and school functions; they have the largest vessel; and they have the most trips offered each day.”

However, Willcox said it would have been fairer to base ticket prices on distance and use of the service.

Islesboro selectmen were scheduled to approve a letter to Maine DOT outlining objections during a special meeting Monday, April 23. Town Manager Janet Anderson said April 25 the letter remains a draft and has not been approved by selectmen.

Maine State Ferry Service provides ferry transportation to the Penobscot Bay island communities of Vinalhaven, North Haven, Islesboro, Swans Island, Frenchboro and Matinicus. The ferry service proposed increased user fees to cover a projected shortfall in its 2020 operating budget of $11 million. State law requires that at least 50 percent of operating costs come from user fees.

The approved rates will “standardize ferry prices across the entire system,” according to a press release from Maine DOT.

“A key component of the new rate structure is an overall decrease of more than 10 percent to the truck/freight rates to help keep the costs to Maine businesses supplying goods and services to and from the islands competitive,” the press release states.

Maine DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt said the new rate is expected to lead to better customer service and use of technology.

“It will also provide all Maine residents, businesses and visitors greater flexibility, treating all users equitably by eliminating the antiquated and geographically discriminatory rate pricing that currently differs from island to island and island to mainland,” Bernhardt said.

Islanders urged the ferry service to consider a 17-percent across-the-board increase rather than its original proposal, which would have set different fees for year-round and seasonal residents. A decision on the new rates — originally set to begin in March — was delayed by DOT officials after the negative response, which included a letter from Islesboro selectmen.

Following a Jan. 29 meeting, board members wrote, “ … it is apparent to both the Select Board and the Islesboro community that additional consideration is needed before finalizing a rate increase and implementing a plan.”

“MSFS had originally proposed to implement a new resident/non-resident rate structure by the end of March,” Bernhardt said in a March press release. “However, due to the considerable input received at both the public meetings on the islands, as well as during the written comment period that followed, I am going to take more time to review the record and the rate proposals before making a final decision on how to move forward.”

Rates have not increased in 10 years, according to the ferry service. Tickets previously purchased will expire May 21 when the new fee structure begins, but the ferry service will allow those tickets to be traded in for 90 days. Others will have a non-cash upgrade value that will not expire, according to the press release, and additional notices will be posted about ticket expiration.

 

SIDEBAR

New rates

  • Adult round-trip passenger, $11
  • Child round-trip passenger, $5.50
  • Vehicle less than 20 feet, round-trip (includes ticket for driver), $30
  • Truck one-way, per foot, $2.50
  • Truck round-trip, per foot, $2.50
  • Adult, bike round-trip, $20
  • Child, bike round-trip, $10
  • Reservations $15
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