SWANS ISLAND — None of the 49 Swans Island residents at a public hearing Tuesday night spoke in favor of a proposal by the Maine Department of Transportation to change the fare structure for the Maine State Ferry Service, but about a dozen expressed their opposition.
Officials of the ferry service, which hasn’t raised its rates since 2009, say it needs to generate about $740,000 more revenue a year to avoid budget shortfalls.
Under the current fare structure, people who buy round-trip tickets on the outer islands, such as Swans Island and Frenchboro, pay just over half as much as the price of tickets on the mainland. Mark Higgins, manager of the ferry service, said many people, including those who have seasonal homes on the outer islands but live out of state most of the year, have been taking advantage of what was intended as a benefit for outer island residents by purchasing their tickets on the islands. He said about 80 percent of all ticket sales occur on the outer islands, depriving the ferry service of much-needed revenue.
Under the new fare structure that the ferry service and MDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt are considering, the price of tickets would be the same regardless of where they are purchased, and the official rate would be the same for everyone. But those who show a Maine driver’s license or other proof of Maine residence would receive a discount of nearly 50 percent.
The ferry service’s advisory board, which last year reviewed several possible rate structures, voted against the one that the ferry service and MDOT have proposed. The board favored an across-the-board rate increase of about 15 percent.
Myron “Sonny” Sprague, chairman of the Swans Island Board of Selectmen and a member of the ferry service’s advisory board, said at Tuesday’s public hearing that just over half of the town’s property tax bills are paid by people who live out of state most of the year.
“Some of them have been here longer than I have; their families have been here since the turn of the last century,” he said.
As for charging them more than year-round residents to ride the ferry, he said, “It looks like it’s not right.”
Other island residents agreed.
“We have many people who have homes here and have been visiting this island for 40 and 45 years and more, and now you are going to suddenly double their fees,” Jeffrey Ellison said. “That is just unconscionable to do to people.
“We pay taxes to the state to have a department of tourism to attract people from out of state to visit Maine,” he continued. “And [the MDOT] is trying to screw the visitors from out of state. That does not sound like the right thing to do.”
Like several others who spoke, Ellison said he favored “a straight across-the-board increase.”
Three people used the word “nightmare” to describe a likely result of what they termed the “in-state/out-of-state” rate structure.
“It’s going to be a nightmare for the terminal agents, for the person taking the tickets and when they’re loading the boat,” Kathy Clark said.
Donna Wiegle noted that one of the MDOT’s stated goals in implementing a new rate structure is to make it simpler and more efficient.
“This does not in any way simplify the ticketing system,” she said. “And it would really slow down loading the boats.”
She argued that the in-state/out-of-state structure would not necessarily generate the revenue that the ferry service says it needs.
“A lot of people from out of state are going to ride the boat a lot less if they’re paying more money,” Wiegle said.
Dexter Lee, a selectmen for 43 years before retiring last year, said, “I don’t think anybody here objects to a rate increase. Inflation is a basic fact of life. But why complicate things? It’s so much simpler to just go up 10, 12 or 15 percent across the board.”
Several speakers at Tuesday’s hearing said in similar hearings last month on Vinalhaven and Islesboro that most if not all of those who spoke opposed the in-state/out-of-state rate structure.
“If you go with [that proposal], you are going against what your constituents want, what our representatives advised you and what you’re hearing on all the islands,” resident Carolyn McMullin said. “It seems to me you’re not paying attention to your customers.”
Higgins said he and Bernhardt are listening and will take all comments into consideration.
“Part of the reason we’re having the public hearings is that this is not a done deal,” he said. “I know some people think the fix is in. It is not in.”
The public may submit comments on the proposed ferry fare rate structure until March 2. Comments may be sent to Higgins at [email protected].
The ultimate decision on a new rate structure will be made by Bernhardt.