Island residents and others wait to speak at a public hearing on ferry fees at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast. (Photos by Brian P. D. Hannon)
Island residents and others wait to speak at a public hearing on ferry fees at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast. (Photos by Brian P. D. Hannon)
More than two hours were needed to hear all of the area residents and municipal officials who lined up inside Belfast’s Hutchinson Center on November 28, waiting their turn to speak about a new fee structure for the ferries that transport residents and visitors to islands along the coast.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT), which operates the Maine State Ferry Service (MSFS), initiated the new rate structure, known as Rule 602, which went into effect in May. The new fee structure has drawn opposition from many island residents who travel regularly between the midcoast’s islands and the mainland, especially those from Islesboro, which has filed a suit to oppose the new rate structure.

MSFS Manager Mark Higgins said the new system, which levies identical flat rates for the six islands in Penobscot Bay, is achieving its goal of user fees offsetting the average state taxpayer contribution of $15.3 million annually to operate the ferries through the state’s highway fund. State law dictates that the fund shall cover 50 percent of the ferry system’s operational budget, with the other half to come from fares and fees. Higgins said the previous fee structure covered less than 27 percent of the total.

A single rate also contributes to smooth administration of the service, as well as a future transition to online and e-ticketing, Higgins said.

The most controversial aspect of the new system is Tariff Number 8, which enables the state to impose a temporary surcharge following a notice of 21 days to offset increased costs and a drop in the number of travelers.

Ferry service attorney James Billings said at the beginning of the hearing that the meeting was convened to obtain input from the public.

Mary Costigan, an attorney representing Islesboro in a lawsuit against the state, said the proposed change that “increases the rate of an adult, round-trip ticket from Islesboro 100 percent and which increases the vehicle rate by more than 100 percent, and either decreases or only slightly increases rates from other islands in the system, is an imposition of an illegal tax.”

She added that Tariff 8 subverts administrative oversight regulations. “Imposing a surcharge that can remain for up to a year with only 21 days’ notice and no guidelines whatsoever is completely contrary to the law,” she said. “If the department takes the time to create a rate structure that is related to the cost of service, treats all users fairly and equally, it should be able to meet its budgetary goals, therefore not requiring a sudden surcharge to reflect any sudden increases that they’re not prepared for.”

Some opponents said charging a flat rate for all ferry trips imposes an extra burden on Islesboro, which is closer to the mainland than the other islands affected by the rate change. They suggested establishing a rate fee similar to the one used on the Maine Turnpike, where drivers are charged tolls based upon how far they travel on the road. In the case of ferries, the distance of an island from the mainland would raise or lower the price of a ticket.

Two Islesboro school buses were among the vehicles in the overflow parking lot at the Belfast hearing site. A majority of the more than 150 attendees seated in rows of chairs and standing in the back of a packed conference room applauded the speakers who opposed the measure. Frenchboro resident Duncan Bond was the only person who stepped to the microphone when supporters of the changes were asked to speak.

Island residents said the new fees have negatively impacted their lives by raising costs to the point where they have reduced mainland trips for essential services and goods for their homes and businesses. Some said they may even need to relocate to the mainland.

Islesboro Select Board member Gabriel Pendleton said the town had expectations for the ferry service, including ticket price increases over time for which residents have always budgeted, but also inclusion in the process of making changes to the fee structure.

“We don’t expect prices to double. We don’t expect to be given a 20-day notice for such a drastic change. We don’t expect to have to pay for part of others traveling to Matinicus and other islands,” Pendleton said. “We don’t expect that the Maine State Ferry Service doesn’t have the most basic of cost and revenue information for the ferry service. This is why we filed a lawsuit, this is why we’re here today.”

He claimed the DOT has not met any of its three stated goals for rate changes, including collecting necessary revenue, creating a rate structure that simplifies the ticketing system, and maximizing revenue during the peak season to minimize the effect of rate increases on full-time islanders.

“The rates have been standardized across all ferries, and are the same year-round,” Pendleton said. “This shifts the burden to year-round residents who are more frequent and consistent riders and away from seasonal and transient riders.”

He drew scattered laughter from the audience when he said there is no need to “oversimplify” rates for e-ticketing, pointing out that the technology to set individual seat prices for thousands of venues already exists on websites such as Ticketmaster and StubHub.

Town representatives from island and mainland communities, including North Haven, Vinalhaven, Lincolnville, Rockport, Camden and Belfast, spoke in support of Islesboro and in opposition to the new prices.

Both the outgoing state representative for House District 94, Owen Casas, and his incoming replacement in the Legislature, Vicki Doudera, appeared to express their opposition to the new ticket prices.

“One size does not fit all,” Doudera said. “The current fares by the Maine State Ferry Service are attempting to make one size or one fare or one toll work for all of the islands regardless of how far they are from the mainland.”

Waldo County Commissioner Betty Johnson said her board had to budget an extra $1,000 to cover additional expenses caused by the fee change, adding that increasing costs will increase “social isolation” among the aging population on the islands.

“The consequences of this increase will be felt by the island and the mainland residents up and down the midcoast,” Johnson said.

Islesboro resident Roger Heinen said the island is reliant on the boats to and from the mainland. “Our community existence depends on the ferry, we don’t exist as a full-time community without it,” Heinen said. “This rate structure stabbed us in the back.”

He added that increasing ferry fees could sap the vitality from the community and force some residents to move off Islesboro, or at least take fewer trips, which he saw as counterproductive.

“I’ve been in business a long time and this is a very unusual business model, to raise your rates and prices to lower the number of customers,” Heinen said to audience applause. “I think from a standpoint of morality and good Maine neighbors, that you need to start exhibiting the fact that you honestly believe you have a duty of care to us as the stakeholders.”