More than 250 people turned out Wednesday for a belated hearing on the state’s controversial decision to double ferry rates for Islesboro residents. Most of those who testified were strong critics of the new rate structure.
Isleboro residents were outraged in May when a new, single-price fare for all state ferries was imposed. While that meant a fare drop in rates for some services, such as to Vinalhaven and Matinicus, the $11 adult fare is twice what residents of Islesboro had been paying. Vehicle fares to the island went up as well.
“How will families who already struggle to provide for their kids continue to live in Islesboro when they are faced with such an insurmountable cost?” asked Kristen Kelley, an Islesboro school teacher and single mother.
Kelley was one of the vast majority of opponents at the hearing in Belfast, which the state called belatedly after criticism for imposing the new rate structure without one. She says the fare hike poses an existential threat to the island’s viability as a year-round community.
“You are doing this without regard, without transparency, without fairness,” she says. “I oppose the unethical decision to raise the price so sharply for one island. I oppose pricing that hits the most vulnerable the hardest.”
State officials say the single fare system spreads costs more equitably among the islands, and that it is needed to close a looming budget gap.
Mark Higgins, the ferry service’s manager, says that the state highway fund contributes some $15 million a year to ferry operations – more than 70 percent of the overall budget.
“If that gap is not covered, the only other option is to alter the level of service provided,” Higgins says. “The tolls the department is proposing should cover the gap.”
That’s small comfort to Paul Hatch, who runs trucks and provides other construction services between the islands and the mainland. The new rate structure, he says, will cost him at least $30,000 more per year. He told his fellow islanders he’d already significantly raised what he charges islanders to cover the fare hike.
“I’m here to tell you people right now that I’m going to go up more,” Hatch says. “Because I’ve done the math and I’m not going to make it. I employ five people in the spring, summer and fall, and three more in winter to plow snow. I would hate to let them go, because I know that within five years two or three people such as myself are going to be out of business.”
Islanders want state officials to go back to the drawing board, to make a comprehensive audit of systems costs and revenue sources and apportion costs in relation to distance from the mainland.
That could force rate hikes for other island ferries. Some speakers from those islands said they were mostly satisfied with the new rate structure - with the exception of a move by the state to impose an unspecified surcharge as needed. But they also expressed solidarity with the Islesboro residents.
Phil Crossman is a Vinalhaven selectman.
“I look forward to the day when the six island communities can speak with one voice,” he says. “I’m sorry I didn’t speak up when I knew Islesboro was being treated unfairly.”
After a comment period, the ferry service will have four months to make a final decision. A lawsuit filed by Islesboro residents, meanwhile, is on hold pending that final rate decision.