A ferry in Penobscot Bay carries vehicles and passengers from Islesboro to Lincolnville. A new ferry fee proposal uses a mix of seasonal rates and varying rates based on where a passenger is going, rather than the current controversial flat fee structure.

BELFAST, Maine — A new rate system aims to make ticket prices more affordable and fair for islanders and others who depend on state ferries to transport them to and from the mainland.

Islanders who came to a Belfast hearing this week on the Maine State Ferry Service’s latest fee proposal had a message for state officials — the new proposal is a big improvement, but it’s still far from perfect.

The new plan eliminates a controversial flat-rate structure and includes a number of suggestions that island residents shared this spring with Bruce Van Note, the new commissioner for the Maine Department of Transportation.

More than a year ago, the department, which operates the state ferry service, implemented the flat-rate structure that more than doubled the price of a ticket to and from Islesboro. At just 3 miles from the mainland, Islesboro is the least remote of the six island communities served by state ferries. Islanders who were angry over the the price hike filed a lawsuit with the state, which led to transportation officials renewing the rate-setting process.  

“I think there have been some beneficial changes,” Islesboro Selectman Gabe Pendleton said Monday at a public hearing at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center. “However, I remain concerned about the costs outpacing the ability of island residents to afford ticket prices in general.”

Van Note told attendees he has enjoyed visiting the islands to better understand islanders’ needs.

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He says the state needs to generate enough revenue from ridership to pay for about half of the roughly $12 million annual operating costs for the ferry service.

“A definition of fairness that is universally held continues to be elusive,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll stop the struggle.”

Under the current ticket structure, riders pay one price: $11 for a roundtrip ticket and $30 for a passenger with a car. It’s the same whether they are taking a 20-minute ferry ride from Lincolnville to Isleboro, or a more than two-hour ride from Rockland to Matinicus.

The new proposal (included below) is more complicated and uses a mix of seasonal rates and varying rates based on where a passenger is going. 

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There is also an option to purchase five commuter tickets for the price of four, as long as they are used within seven days.

Some who spoke at the public hearing said they would like the department to keep tweaking the proposal, suggesting that the peak season be reduced to three months and that officials allow islanders to buy tickets in bulk before the season changes, among other ideas.

Islesboro resident John King said he’s concerned about the way ferry-service operating costs have increased by 50 percent over the last decade.

“Unless and until we get ahold of costs, I’m concerned that the current proposal is merely a Band-aid measure,” he said.

But Rick Lattimer, the North Haven town administrator, said that he appreciates what Van Note and others in the transportation department have tried to do.

“They’ve worked really hard and thoughtfully,” he said.

Others indicated their distress that the process of fixing the problems with the ferry tickets has dragged on for so long. Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, pointed out the issue remains largely unresolved after more than a year, which she called deeply frustrating.

“At the heart of this issue is the misconception that our islands are somehow separate from the rest of Maine,” she said. “Let me be clear — these issues are not ‘island issues,’ they’re Maine issues.”

The Maine Department of Transportation will accept comments on the latest proposal until Sept. 3, and a new ticket structure could be in place by Oct. 1.

BDN writer Lauren Abbate contributed to this report.