BELFAST, Maine — Michael Boucher has lived on Islesboro with his family for more than 30 years. For most of those years, the small island community, located only 3 miles from the mainland, “has been struggling to survive,” he said.
Despite recent progress made on Islesboro to invest in its future survival as a community, Boucher, and a chorus of other residents, are warning the Maine Department of Transportation that the new flat rate ticket structure the Maine State Ferry Service implemented earlier this year will put the island in jeopardy.
“Everything costs more [living on an island], and we’re willing to pay for it. But we’re willing to do it if it was done in a predictable and reasonable way,” Boucher said. “A 100 percent [rate increase] with 20 days notice is neither predictable nor reasonable. It’s the kind of thing that puts people under water, and unfortunately in this situation, it puts our community under water. It puts the survival of a tiny little community off in the North Atlantic in jeopardy.”
Boucher was one of nearly three dozen people who spoke against the new rate structure at a public hearing held Wednesday in Belfast by the Maine Department of Transportation, which runs the Maine State Ferry Service. The hearing drew more than 150 people and, despite running for more than two hours, remained largely civil.
Under the current rate structure, there is one flat ticket rate for the entire system: $11 for one round trip ticket and $30 for a person with a car. Prior to the rate change, each island had its own rate, with tickets discounted on the island in order to save island residents money.
Wednesday’s hearing was part of the DOT’s effort to put the rate structure, implemented in May, in place through a rulemaking process under a new proposed rule. In a lawsuit, Islesboro residents are claiming that the DOT failed to follow the appropriate rulemaking procedure when it put the new rate structure in place.
In a ruling last month, a judge found that Islesboro showed a likelihood of success on the merits of the argument that the DOT failed to follow the proper rulemaking process. DOT attorney James Billings said Wednesday that the DOT chose to go through with the rulemaking process in response to the lawsuit, which is on hold until the rulemaking process is complete, or Jan. 1, 2019, whichever comes first.
The rate change was put in place to avoid a budget shortfall in 2020, according to Maine State Ferry Service Manager Mark Higgins. The new rate structure is aimed to help increase the portion of the ferry service budget not covered by state and federal funds, Higgins said Wednesday. The flat rate structure also did away with discounts for island residents, which Higgins said were being taken advantage of by people who did not live on the islands.
“The current [flat rate] system,” Higgins said, “is working.”
But residents of Islesboro strongly disagree.
Since the new rate structure went into effect six months ago, Islesboro residents have been infuriated because the change caused their rates to more than double. Other island communities the ferries serve saw their rates mostly stay the same, or in some cases, decrease.
The Maine State Ferry Service provides ferry service from the mainland to the islands of Frenchoro, Swan’s Island, Matinicus, North Haven, Vinalhaven and Islesboro.
Only one person spoke in favor of the new rate structure Wednesday, Duncan Bond, a Frenchboro resident who serves as the island’s representative to the Maine State Ferry Service Advisory Board. The flat rate structure caused the round trip ticket price and the cost of bringing a car to Frenchboro to decrease slightly.
While the meeting was open to all members of the public, an overwhelming number of speakers were from Islesboro or residents of mainland communities who were speaking in support of Islesboro’s stance against the new rate structure.
Those opposed to the rate increase are asking the DOT to go back to the drawing board and devise a new rate structure that is based on the cost of operating each individual ferry route, rather than a one size fits all model.
Islesboro resident Roger Heinen encouraged DOT officials to do their “homework” so the rate structure is “equitable and balanced” for all stakeholders.
The trip from the Maine State Ferry Service’s mainland terminal in Lincolnville to Islesboro is the shortest trip run by the ferry service.
“Our community’s existence depends on the ferry,” Heinen said. “This rate structure stabbed us in the back.”
The process for how the new rate structure went into effect was also a main point of contention for many who spoke. While the DOT did hold hearings on proposed rate changes prior to May, several proposals were floated and they did not include the flat rate structure that ultimately was implemented.
Gabe Pendleton of Islesboro said islanders expect to pay for the ferry service, and they expect for rates to periodically increase. However, “when ticket prices rise, we expect to be part of the process,” Pendleton said.
With the cost of tickets more than doubling for people traveling to and from Islesboro, many people who spoke Wednesday said residents are drastically cutting down on the number of trips they’re making, whether they be for doctor’s appointments or trips to the store.
This cut down on ridership is not only hurting islanders, Heinen said, but it also will ultimately hurt the DOT’s goal of increasing ridership, and therefore revenue.
Jordy Watson, who lives and works on Islesboro, said the cost for his family of five to make a trip to the mainland and back has risen from $31.75 a trip, to $63 per trip under the current rate structure. To stay within their budget, they’re having to cut down on use of the ferry.
“[Fewer] visits to family [and] delays of potentially important appointments were necessary to allow for consolidation of trips. Doubling the cost of the ferry rate has forced my family to cut our use of the ferry infrastructure in half for costs to remain in budget for our family,” Watson said. “How do we cover our budget shortfalls that accrue from the rising travel cost? We make adjustments to the dismay of the DOT.”
In addition to the flat rate structure, islanders also are concerned about a the DOT’s proposal of putting in place a process that would allow the ferry service to implement temporary surcharges on ticket rates in response to unintended costs or decreases to ridership. Higgins said these surgcharges would be made with at least 21 days notice and go into effect for a period of 180 days, with the possibility of a second 180-day extension.
Vinalhaven Town Manager Andrew Dorr said he was concerned about this possibility, and urged the DOT to cut the 180-day period in half. North Haven Town Administrator Rick Lattimer said the surcharge language is “too loose and too lax” for users of the ferry service to realistically budget for its possibility.
Billings and Higgins did not respond to any statements or questions at the public hearing, since the purpose of the hearing was to gather comments onto the record to be considered during the ongoing rulemaking process.
Billings also declined to answer any questions from the Bangor Daily News.
The DOT will be accepting written comments through Dec. 12, which marks the end of the public comment period of the rulemaking process. Once the public comment period closes, 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, according to the state’s rulemaking process.