A state ferry arrives at Swans Island. A final decision on proposed changes to the rate structure for the ferry has been postponed. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Hike in ferry fares on hold: Public objections cited



ROCKLAND — State transportation officials are reconsidering a proposed new rate structure and fare increases for the Maine State Ferry Service, which had been scheduled to go into effect by the end of this month.

The Maine Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that a final decision is being delayed until “later this spring.”

The MDOT indicated in a press release that the postponement was prompted by objections to the new rate structure expressed by members of the public, including at a hearing on Swans Island on Feb. 20.

The ferry service, which is part of the MDOT, has said it needs to generate additional revenue of about $740,000 a year to avoid a budget shortfall.

Under the current fare structure, people who buy round-trip ferry tickets on the outer islands, including Swans Island and Frenchboro, pay just over half as much as they would pay 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 proposed new fare structure, 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 residency 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.

At the public hearing that the MDOT held on Swans Island last month, no one spoke in favor or the proposed new rate structure, and several strongly criticized it. Many said they favored an across-the-board rate increase. Nearly everyone who spoke at public hearings on Islesboro and Vinalhaven also criticized the proposed rate structure.

“Due to the considerable input received both at public meetings on the islands, as well as during the written comment period that followed, I am going to take more time to review the record and the rate proposals before making a final decision on how to move forward,” MDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt said in the press release.

State law requires that user fees cover at least half of the ferry service’s operating costs. The ferry service has said its proposed 2020 budget of $11 million will require it to raise ticket prices for the first time since 2009 to meet that legal mandate.

Higgins said the ferry service would work with Bernhardt “to craft a final rate structure that incorporates the public feedback with the [ferry service’s] operational and policy goals, for release and implementation in the coming months.”

The ferry service operates routes between Bass Harbor and Swans Island and Frenchboro, between Lincolnville and Islesboro, and between Rockland and Vinalhaven, North Haven and Matinicus. Its headquarters is in Rockland.

 

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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