AUGUSTA — The cost of riding the ferry between Bass Harbor and Swan’s Island or Frenchboro would go up under a new rate schedule proposed by the Maine Department of Transportation.
The current round-trip fare for an adult walk-on passenger is $11. Under the proposed rate schedule, that price would increase to $12.50 for trips from October through May and to $17.50 for June through September.
For children, the round trip fare would go from the current $5.50 to $6.25 in the off-season and $11.25 in the summer.
The current round-trip fare for a personal vehicle and driver is $30. Under the DOT’s proposal, that would go up to $31 in the offseason and $38.50 in the summer.
Those rate hikes also would apply to the ferry routes between Rockland and both North Haven and Vinalhaven.
For trips between Lincolnville and Islesboro, which is both the shortest and most heavily traveled of the Maine State Ferry routes, most fares would go down in the off-season and up in the summer.
An adult round-trip walk-on ticket would go from the current $11 to $8 in the off-season and $13 in the summer. For a minor walk-on passenger, the round trip fare would go from $5.50 to $4 in the off-season and $9 in the summer. For a vehicle and driver, the cost would drop from the current $30 to $22 in the off-season and $29.50 in the summer.
The proposed rate changes are in response to howls of protest from many Islesboro residents over the revised rate structure that the DOT put into effect just 14 months ago, which greatly increased the price of trips to and from Lincolnville. A private ferry service was started to compete with the Maine State Ferry on that route, and it had a significant impact on the public ferry’s ridership and revenue.
Maine Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note, who was named to the post by Governor Janet Mills in January, announced shortly after his appointment that the DOT would look into amending the ferry rate structure. He said in a July 10 memo to members of the Maine State Ferry Advisory Board that the revised rate proposal is “aimed at benefitting the entire service by further mitigating the ridership losses that were caused by the rates currently in effect.”
Under that rate structure, which went into effect in May 2018, the round-trip fare between Bass Harbor and Swan’s Island or Frenchboro dropped from $17.50 to the current $11 for adult walk-on passengers. For private vehicles, the fare went from $49.50 to $30.
But the fare for private vehicles previously covered all of the vehicle’s passengers. The new $30 fare covers only the driver. All other adult passengers are charged $11, and children under 12 pay $5.50.
Under the proposed rate structure, children’s fares would apply to anyone under 17.
Trucks larger than pickups are charged by the foot. The current rate is $2.50 per foot. The proposed new rates call for that price to increase to $4.25 in the off-season and $4.75 in the summer.
If the proposed new rate structure goes into effect, trips on the Bass Harbor-Swan’s Island-Frenchboro routes will, for the most part, cost more than they do now but less than prior to May of last year.
The current rate schedule was implemented in an effort to increase revenue for the Maine State Ferry. State law requires that at least 50 percent of the ferry service’s operating budget be covered by user fees, with the rest coming from the state’s highway fund. State officials said last year that rate adjustments were needed to generate an additional $740,000 annually to comply with that mandate.
In announcing the proposed new ferry rates, the DOT said it has tried to establish a “fair rate structure that raises the 50 percent of operations required.”
“It has become clear that different islands have different perspectives, that there can be different definitions of ‘fair’ even on the same island, and that no proposal will be universally supported.”
DOT officials wrote that they believe they have come up with a “reasonable and balanced proposal” and they “hope that all participants [in the fare structure review] will agree that the process was open and fair and that all have been heard and respected.”
Sonny Sprague, chairman of the Swan’s Island Board of Selectmen and a member of the Maine State Ferry Advisory Board, has mixed feelings about the proposed ferry rate structure.
“Our tickets are going to be more than I’d hoped they would be, but the system has got to function and it’s a great service,” he said. “I feel they’ve probably done the best they could do.”
DOT officials said they would hold a public hearing on the proposed new ferry rate structure and that members of the public also may submit written comments. The public hearing has not yet been scheduled.
“It is anticipated that new rates will take effect on October 1, 2019,” the DOT said.
Under the rate structure that went into effect in May 2018, people who ride the ferry between Rockland and Matinicus were the biggest winners. The price of a round-trip ticked dropped from $33 to $11 for an adult walk-on passenger and from $86 to $30 for a private vehicle and driver.
Under the proposed new rate structure, Matinicus prices would go way up again: from $11 to $30 for an adult walk-on passenger and from $30 to $80 for a private vehicle and driver.
The Matinicus ferry makes four round trips per month May through October and fewer in the winter and early spring.