TREMONT— Friday trips to Frenchboro on the R.L. Gott have been a constant part of Eli Strauss’s life for at least the last two decades, as well as for the year-round residents of that island.
“I’ve been doing this since I’ve owned the business,” said Strauss, who captains the ferry boat that runs from April through November. “I was crewing on that boat when my dad owned the business.”
Continuation of the ferry service that provides a Friday morning trip on or off Frenchboro, and then another in the afternoon, was discussed at a recent Maine State Ferry Service Advisory Board meeting.
“What’s significant about our boat is you can go to the doctor, the kids can go to Pemetic (Elementary School) and return on the same day,” Strauss explained in a conversation with the Islander. “Special education teachers, music teachers can go out and come back to the mainland (on the same day).”
After hearing from residents of Frenchboro, members of the island’s school community, including Superintendent Marc Gousse, Strauss, representatives from Sen. Angus King and Rep. Jared Golden’s offices, Rep. Genevieve McDonald and a selectman from Swan’s Island all speaking about the importance of the ferry service for the year-round community on the island, the board voted to recommend continuing the service. However, they do not have the final say; the state’s commissioner of the Department of Transportation does.
“People that live there and are close to the place see it as something really, really special,” said Strauss. “It’s the smallest of the non-bridged year-round populated islands in Maine.”
As with many service businesses, this year was a tough one for the R.L. Gott.
“All this COVID started when I was putting the boat in the water,” said Strauss. “All the ferry operators got together to figure out how they were going to run the boats. What we didn’t see was the summer visitors.”
When Pemetic Elementary School closed for in-person learning, students were no longer taking the Friday boat to the mainland. Art and music teachers and special service providers for the students of the island school were no longer going out to Frenchboro. Ridership for residents, who still needed to shop for supplies and groceries, was down about 30 percent, according to Strauss.
“Through October of this year, this service carried 549 passengers,” said MDOT’s public spokesman Paul Merrill. “In 2019, this service carried 905 passengers. This year, Maine DOT has paid an average of $58.72 per passenger toward this service… This is a private ferry that we subsidize.”
According to Strauss, “It’s the only privately-contracted boat in the Maine State Ferry Service.”
To shuttle folks back and forth, Strauss purchases tickets from the ferry service and sells them to passengers for the same price.
“I pay for fuel, crew, everything,” said Strauss, who uses the municipal dock next to the ferry terminal in Bass Harbor to board passengers. “I pay for all of my expenses… I charge the ferry service for the number of trips I’ve run that month. It’s 70 to 80 percent subsidized.”
As with any business after a year of economic downturn because of COVID-19, the DOT is reviewing its budget and trying to figure out what can be done to address a $230 million shortfall.
“Everything is under the microscope right now,” said Merrill. “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs right now if we weren’t looking at every service and what we get in return.”
While Strauss understands a state agency’s need to be financially prudent, he feels the cost of running the boat is such a small part of the DOT budget that cutting it wouldn’t make a big difference, at least not to the agency. But its effect on Frenchboro would be significant.
“What’s notable about it is the impact on a community,” he said, noting that reports at the state level sometimes lag. “By the time we had the meeting last week, the revenue numbers had caught up, and the deficit wasn’t nearly what they thought it was.”
Strauss’s contract for the R.L. Gott with the Maine State Ferry Service is renewed each year, with a 2 percent increase. According to Merrill, “We’re approaching the end of a four-year contract.”
Costs for the contract are split between the state of Maine and DOT’s ferry service. Merrill expects the commissioner to make a decision about the contract within the next month or two. Meeting days and times are posted on the MSFS website.
“Eli Strauss is a skilled mariner who holds a passion for our unbridged outer islands,” said Superintendent Gousse in an email to the Islander, paraphrasing the statement he made during the MSFS advisory board meeting. “His support and that of the Maine Ferry Service are crucial to supporting and sustaining a way of life, which is rapidly disappearing from our landscape.
“This service supports the ability for the Frenchboro school to remain open and provides the ability for our students and staff to participate in enrichment programs and experiences they cannot access within their community.”