The state is putting off plans to increase island ferry fares until later this spring, the Maine Department of Transportation announced Tuesday.

The rate hikes were originally expected to take effect by the end of this month.

“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,” Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said in a news release.

State transportation officials proposed the rate hike early this year, hosting public hearings on each island served by the ferry system: North Haven, Vinalhaven, Islesboro, Matinicus, Swan’s Island and Frenchboro.

They fielded pushback from officials and residents on several of the islands, who worried the new system would create more gridlock at the docks and that it treated seasonal residents and property owners unfairly.

Under the current rate system, tickets purchased on islands are cheaper than those bought on the mainland. That was intended to benefit islanders who take the most trips back and forth, but state officials claimed some have abused the system, and about 80 percent of tickets are purchased on islands.

The ferry service proposed one flat rate, regardless of where the ticket is purchased, but people who could prove their Maine residency would get a discounted rate.

Rates vary from island to island, and fees are added for people who bring cars, trucks or bicycles on the ferry. For the ferry from Lincolnville to Islesboro — the most heavily used route — a current ticket for a person costs $10 on the mainland or $5.50 on the island.

If the proposed changes are implemented, the island discounts would be scrapped entirely. Mainers looking to hop on the Islesboro ferry would pay $7 round trip, while out-of-staters would pay $14.

Ticket prices haven’t increased since 2009, and the ferry service said it needs to increase its revenue by $700,000 to avoid a budget shortfall in 2020.

“We will be taking the valuable public input we received, and work with the commissioner to craft a final rate structure that incorporates the public feedback with the [ferry service] operational and policy goals, for release in implementation in the coming months,” said Mark Higgins, manager of the ferry service.

In justifying the higher rates for non-Maine residents, the ferry service argues Maine residents already pay to keep the ferries running via a year-round gas tax, according to Higgins. Those tax dollars get pumped into the Maine Highway Fund, a portion of which supports the ferries.

The ferry service also says the new rate structure would allow it to implement new technologies that are becoming commonplace across public transportation, such as automated kiosks, online ticket sales, and the ability to scan tickets on mobile devices.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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