The Maine Department of Transportation will give members of the public a chance to voice their comments or concerns during a hearing Wednesday about Maine State Ferry Service ticket rate changes that went into effect earlier this year.
The DOT, which runs the Maine State Ferry Service, announced earlier this month that it would go through a rulemaking process on the rate changes that went into effect in May. Islesboro residents saw ticket costs double under the new rate structure and are claiming in a lawsuit that the DOT failed to go through a proper rulemaking process before the new rate structure went into effect.
A public hearing at noon Wednesday at University of Maine Hutchinson Center on Belmont Avenue in Belfast is one of the first steps in the rulemaking process, as outlined by the state. People also may submit public comments to the DOT through Dec. 12.
Following the hearing and public comment period, the DOT will consider the comments and other information available before making a formal decision on adopting the rule. Adoption of the rule would have to take place within 120 days from the end of the public comment period.
At the hearing, transportation officials also will take comments on a process that would allow the ferry service to implement a temporary surcharge on tickets “if the costs of the [ferry service] increase or ridership decreases causing a shortfall in operating funds,” according to the hearing notice.
Prior to May, it had been about nine years since the Maine State Ferry Service increased its rates, which officials said needed to happen to avoid a budget shortfall. The ferry service runs ferries between the mainland and the islands of North Haven, Vinalhaven, Islesboro, Matinicus, Swan’s Island and Frenchboro.
Prior to the new ticket rate structure, each island had its own rate, and tickets purchased on the islands were discounted with the goal of saving residents money.
Under the new structure, there is a flat rate across the entire ferry service system: $11 for a round-trip ticket and $30 for anyone with a vehicle.
The rate changes met little resistance on most of the islands the ferries serve, but residents of Islesboro have been infuriated by the new rate structure, which caused their ticket prices to more than double.
As the DOT goes through with the rulemaking process, the rate changes put into place in May will still be in place, DOT spokesman Ted Talbot previously told the Bangor Daily News. But there is a chance that once the rulemaking process is complete, a different rate structure than the one put in place in May would be established as a result of the new review.
Earlier this month, a judge denied Islesboro’s motion to stop the rate increase pending its legal appeal. However, residents framed the ruling as a victory, since the judge found that they showed a likelihood of success on the merits of their argument that the DOT failed to follow the proper rulemaking process.
Court proceedings on Islesboro’s lawsuit are on hold until the rulemaking process is complete or Jan. 1, 2019, whichever comes first.