A ferry in Penobscot Bay carrying vehicles and passengers from Islesboro to Lincolnville. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

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ROCKLAND, Maine ― Ridership for the Maine State Ferry Service has dropped more than 50 percent since Maine confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in March.

Ferry service officials expect ridership to be down for much of the summer, when the service typically benefits from seasonal visitors. With a decline in ridership comes a decline in revenue, which officials say will be offset by $2 million in federal funding that the service recently received through the CARES Act.

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“It is what it is. We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Maine State Ferry Service Manager Mark Higgins said Thursday. “I don’t want to call [the loss of revenue] a disappointment because I do think it’s responsible that people are not traveling like they normally would.”

The Maine State Ferry Service, which is managed by the Maine Department of Transportation, provides ferry services to Vinalhaven, North Haven, Matinicus, Islesboro, Frenchboro and Swan’s Island.

Between March 28 and June 3, passenger traffic across the service was down 59 percent from last year, while vehicle traffic was down 40 percent, according to Higgins. On Memorial Day weekend alone, passenger traffic was down 57 percent from last year and vehicle traffic was down 33 percent.

Higgins said in the last two weeks, ridership has been increasing slightly. Based on that trend and Gov. Janet Mills’ phased plan to reopen the economy, Higgins said they are projecting a 30 percent decrease in passenger traffic and 20 to 25 percent decrease for vehicle traffic over the duration of the summer.

“It’s getting better, but not a lot better,” Higgins said.

In an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, the ferry service in late March began scaling back the number of daily trips being made to the islands it serves by 35 to 40 percent. In the last month, the ferry service has begun to increase the number of trips and currently is operating at about 80 percent of its original service, Higgins said. That will increase to 90 percent on July 1.

It could be September before the service is back to its full level of operation, Higgins said.

The drop in ridership comes as the ferry service began to implement its peak season ticket prices, which went into effect in May.

Last year, the Maine State Ferry Service adapted a new ticket pricing system that utilizes seasonal rate changes in order to make more revenue during the busier summer months. This new rate structure replaced a controversial rate structure that charged a flat-rate price across the system with no seasonal changes.

While the ferry service likely will not reap the benefits of the new seasonal rate system this summer, Higgins said the $2 million in CARES funding will help offset losses.

The launch of a new $9 million ferry has also been delayed due to the pandemic. The vessel Richard J. Spear, which will serve Vinalhaven, was supposed to be launched this month. However due to a pandemic-related reduction in workforce where the ferry is being constructed, that launch has been pushed back to August. It likely will join the ferry service fleet in October, Higgins said.

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