SWANS ISLAND — The recent announcement of a new rate structure for the Maine State Ferry Service that will go into effect May 26 did not mention a change that will negatively affect more than a few residents here and on Frenchboro.
The price of reserving a space for a vehicle, which can be done up to a month in advance for a specific ferry run, is increasing from $8 to $15. That’s just for a one-way reservation, and it’s in addition to the price of a ticket for the vehicle and driver.
“That’s a hardship for some people,” said Myron “Sonny” Sprague, chairman of the Swans Island Board of Selectmen and a member of the MSFS’s advisory board, of the fee hike for reservations. “The ones I’m most concerned about are the elderly and the ones on a fixed income who have to go back and forth for doctor’s appointments and things of that nature.”
Donna Wiegle, the town’s health officer, expressed the same concern.
“The person this is going to be hurt the most is the little widow lady living on a fixed income,” she said.
She noted that on a recent Thursday morning, “Three of the four people with reservations for the 8:15 ferry were women who live alone and are on Social Security. They have to have a reservation because they need to know they are going to get to their appointments.”
For such people, she said, ferry reservations are a good idea any time of year, but they are absolutely essential in the summer, when the ferries are packed.
For each ferry run, the ferry service takes reservations for up to four cars and two trucks.
Round-trip tickets purchased on Swans Island currently cost $27.25, and tickets purchased at the Bass Harbor terminal cost $49.50.
But under the new rate structure, ticket prices will be the same regardless of where they are purchased. The new flat rate for a private vehicle will be $30.
That means the total cost of a round trip with reservations both ways is going from $43.25 to $60 for a car and driver.
“My fear is that the ferry rates will be cost prohibitive for the people who are living marginally now,” Wiegle said. “It seems like the cost of transportation to and from the mainland shouldn’t be a factor that pushes you over the edge financially to the point where you can no longer live out here, and yet I think it is coming to that.”
Another change in the new ferry service rate structure is the elimination, at least for now, of a special commuter rate: five round-trip tickets for the price of four.
Sprague said that 20 percent discount has been offered primarily for people who live on the outer islands and work on the mainland or vice versa. The tickets are good only for the week in which they were purchased. Only a handful of Swans Island residents currently take advantage of the commuter rate.
The Maine Department of Transportation, which operates the ferry service, has suggested that commuter tickets might be reinstated at some point, saying the matter “deserves further analysis and study.”
The new ferry rate structure is intended to avoid a projected revenue shortfall for the Maine State Ferry Service. State law requires that at least 50 percent of the operating budget be covered by user fees, with the rest coming from the state’s highway fund. The new rate structure is expected to generate much of the additional $740,000 a year needed to comply with that mandate.
Sprague said that aside from the increased reservation fee and elimination of the commuter ticket, he has no serious complaints about the new ferry rate structure.
“You have to have money to run the ferry service,” he said. “And even though people don’t like increases in anything, it was necessary. And it isn’t horrible, not as bad as I thought it might be.”
Overall, he said, the new simplified rate structure is an improvement.
People who ride the MSFS ferry between Rockland and Matinicus will be the biggest winners when the new rates go into effect next month. The price of a round-trip ticket for an adult walk-on passenger will drop from $33 to $11. The price for a car and driver will go from $86 to $30.
The most heavily used of the six MSFS routes is the one between Lincolnville and Islesboro, and it currently has the lowest fares. The price of an adult round-trip walk-on ticket purchased in Lincolnville is $10, but only $5.50 if purchased on Islesboro. For a car and driver, the price is $27.50 if the ticket is purchased on the mainland, but only $13.75 if purchased on the island.
With the elimination of the discount for tickets purchased on the island, many Islesboro residents are unhappy, because the cost of traveling to and from the mainland will double to $11 for walk-ons and more than double to $30 for cars.
The price of tickets between Rockland and North Haven and Vinalhaven has been the same as for the Bass Harbor-Swans Island route, so the effect of the rate changes for passengers on those routes will be identical.
Updated May 2 at 1:17 p.m.