CRANBERRY ISLES — The Beal & Bunker mail boat service, which has ferried people, freight and mail between the Cranberry Isles and Northeast Harbor since 1952, is for sale. The town is exploring buying it.
The business model favored by the town’s transportation task force would have the town turn over ownership of the ferry service to a nonprofit corporation that would hire someone to operate it.
The task force was formed in April 2014 after the board of selectmen became concerned about the service being provided by Beal & Bunker, according to task force chairman Ron Axelrod.
“Service had started to deteriorate, and they really needed to take a look at it,” he said.
The task force engaged a water transportation consultant, Charles Norris, and developed an opinion survey in which 190 town residents and ferry customers participated. The survey asked about a number of aspects of service including fare prices, schedules, safety and reliability.
“The survey really tells you what’s happened,” Axelrod said. “Beal & Bunker got some very low ratings.”
For example, Beal & Bunker got an average rating of 2.82 on a five-point scale on the question of satisfaction with its on-time reliability. By comparison, Cranberry Cove Ferry, which provides service between Southwest Harbor and the Cranberries from mid-May to mid-October, received an on-time rating of 4.17.
On the question of trip cancellations due to maintenance problems, Beal & Bunker’s score was 2.95. Cranberry Cove’s was 3.69.
Satisfaction ratings for “safety while on the boat” were 3.36 for Beal & Bunker and 4.1 for Cranberry Cove.
Survey respondents gave Beal & Bunker a 2.89 rating on the question of “customer service and comfort.” Cranberry Cove’s rating was 4.04.
“The Bunker family has had a long, wonderful [history of] service to the town and has a lot of goodwill within the town,” Axelrod said. “It’s just recently that it has had difficulties. That makes this a propitious time for us, as well as for [ferry owner] David Bunker, to come to … a sale.
“The town is really the best buyer for him, because I think he will be treated well by the town.”
Axelrod said Bunker has told a Cranberry Isles selectman that he would not be able to continue operating the ferry service after Nov. 1 of this year.
Asked Monday if he intended to cease operations then, Bunker said, “It’s not going to stop running. I’m going to sell it. I’m not going to just shut the boat off and have everybody swim, and I’m not going to sell to anybody that Northeast Harbor won’t accept.”
He declined to answer further questions.
Axelrod said town officials had hoped to acquire the ferry service, set up the non-profit corporation to oversee it and have an operator on board by next summer. But if Bunker wants to be out of the business before then, perhaps as early as November, Axelrod said plans for a ‘transitional service” are being developed.
Axelrod said the town would need to borrow the money to buy the ferry service, but he doesn’t know how much.
“We don’t have an idea of price,” he said. “I’m sure the voters would not agree to a very high price, but what that price is, I don’t know.
“I think there is only so much that the voters could take,” he said, noting that several expensive projects, including road construction and renovation of the Longfellow School on Great Cranberry Island, have been undertaken in the past few years.
Axelrod said all sorts of rumors about the future of the ferry service have been circulating. In part because of that, he said, “We want to make this process as transparent as possible. That’s better for everybody. It reduces tension and hopefully fosters participation.”
The transportation task force will hold a public workshop on the ferry service this Saturday, Aug. 29, at 9 a.m. at the Islesford Neighborhood House.
Beal & Bunker offers six daily round trips from Northeast Harbor to Islesford and Great Cranberry from late June until early September. There are somewhat fewer scheduled daily trips the rest of the year. The mail boat stops at Sutton Island on request.
Frequent passengers include Cranberry Isles residents, tourists, tradespeople and school children. Last year, nine children who live on Great Cranberry took the mail boat to and from Islesford every weekday to attend Ashley Bryan School, according to Principal Heather Webster. She said the same number is expected this year.
Four Cranberry Isles students will attend Mount Desert Island High School.
Cranberry Isles residents and businesses also depend on the mail boat to deliver everything from food to household supplies to construction materials.