Ferry situation is complicated

By Carl N. Brooks

The recent Islander editorial dealing with the ferry situation between Northeast Harbor and the Cranberry Isles falsely accuses the Mount Desert Harbor Management Committee and Beal & Bunker of establishing a “private monopoly.”

It promotes an illegal solution. It suggests a role for the new Northeast Harbor Development Committee.

In its opening and next to last paragraphs, the editorial proposes that the town of Mount Desert give the town of Cranberry Isles a landing right at Northeast Harbor. The town of Cranberry Isles cannot legally hold such a right per se because that violates the sovereignty rights of the town of Mount Desert. Cranberry Isles could only hold landing rights through an arms length entity, a 501(c)(3) whose board consists of Cranberry islanders with a limit of one town official.

However, using a third-party entity to assign, seasonally or even hourly, a landing right is not practical for several reasons. The assignment of a landing right to such a 501(c)(3) is only practical if that entity is in fact the ferry operator. This was voted down by the voters of the town of Cranberry Isles.

The only alternative is for the Mount Desert Harbor Management Committee to create a way to assign or share a landing right among the ferry service(s) preferred (likely subsidized) by the town of Cranberry Isles. I have all faith the committee will be able to achieve this, because they have historically supported us. I speak for all Cranberry islanders in thanking this committee and, indeed, the whole town of Mount Desert for their support over many years

The silent hand of economics has been the primary determinant of the current ferry situation. For a century, the Cranberry Isles’ primary contact with the “mainland” was Seal Harbor. Eber Spurling ran the last regular schedule for the mail and whatever to Seal Harbor. He made other trips as needed.

Driven by the demise of steamer service, the mail moved to Southwest Harbor. Wilfred Bunker ran the mail service plus. Southwest Harbor had neither the physical nor mental capacity to accommodate even the mail. So half a century ago, we were accommodated by Northeast Harbor.

Beal & Bunker was able to develop a scheduled ferry service, build Sea Princess and add a barge service. All of this brought a baseline of year-round business to Northeast Harbor plus a tourist influx in season.

The tourist influx was so great that Beal & Bunker frequently had to use two boats. For years, Beal & Bunker had a monopoly on the ferry traffic to the Cranberry Islands. They were profitable enough in the summer to be able to self-subsidize year-round service. Thank you, Wilfred and David.

Island residents could easily walk to the banks and other Main Street businesses in Northeast Harbor.

However, in the summer, gravel pit parking was no longer adequate. This resulted in rationing and forced the town of Cranberry Isles to seek additional summer parking, which it found in Manset

Manset parking raised demand for Southwest Harbor summer ferry service for island residents, which was met by a private operator. With increased scheduling, he has attracted substantial tourist traffic at the expense of Northeast Harbor. Beal & Bunker no longer makes enough in the summer to subsidize its off-season service. In spite of the editorial’s claim, Beal & Bunker and Northeast Harbor no longer have a summer monopoly on the Cranberry Isles ferry business

Furthermore, contrary to the editorial, the economics for year-round service do not exist.

Perhaps the towns of Cranberry Isles and Mount Desert should form an arms length company to replace the gravel pit lot with a parking structure. The roof level could replace and enlarge the Grey Cow lot for Main Street parking, the middle two levels could be for Cranberry resident parking, and the lower level for a new fire station with direct access to the marina drive. Many islanders who are forced to park at Manset would prefer to use Northeast Harbor

The town of Cranberry Isles has undertaken activities to make the community more vigorous in the off season. One of those is to subsidize “commuter” boats earlier and later than the Beal & Bunker schedule. They also reduce Beal & Bunker ridership.

For the coming season, the town will pay the commuter operators a $62,000 subsidy, of which $22,000 is a transit grant. For another $4,000, these boats connect island high school students to the MDI High School bus serving Northeast Harbor and permit them to participate in extracurricular activities. Additionally, the town pays Beal & Bunker about $18,000 to transport elementary students between Little and Great Cranberry, and to transport them to Northeast Harbor for school activities with Mount Desert Elementary School.

The Islander reported that David Bunker said he would operate the usual schedule at the usual fares this off season for a subsidy of about $50,000. He has not made such an offer directly to the town.

While there are plentiful rumors, no one has publically stepped up with an alternative offering. The economics of this service are terrible and the job of the Mount Desert Harbor Management Committee is daunting

Former Selectman Carl N. Brooks is a resident of the town of Cranberry Isles.

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