Ticket prices for out-of-staters headed to midcoast islands by ferry could shoot up as much as $7 per trip if the state adopts a new pricing structure.

The Maine State Ferry Service, an agency of the state Department of Transportation, says it needs to increase ticket prices to meet its revenue goals. It also wants to change how passengers are charged, by eliminating a system that prices tickets depending on where they are bought, and instead charge Maine residents a lower rate than people from out of state.

But that has some island officials crying foul because of the adverse impact on summer residents.

“We find offensive the fact that a number of these people will be treated like second-class citizens,” said North Haven Town Administrator Joe Stone. “They will have to pay a premium for not being Maine residents.”

Not so, said Jennifer Smith, manager of business and community relations at Maine DOT. She said Maine residents and businesses already support ferry service operating costs through the Highway Fund, which subsidizes the ferries, so they should receive a discount.

“The intent has always been that year-round residents have a discount, because it is a bigger cost for year-round residents,” Smith said. “They are already paying 50 percent of operating costs through the gas tax.”

The state’s ferry service is planning to boost its annual revenue by almost $740,000. If the plan is adopted, ticket prices would increase for everyone, but there would be higher prices charged to out-of-state passengers traveling to six islands in and around Penobscot Bay. The year-round ferry service carries passengers, vehicles and freight to North Haven, Vinalhaven, Frenchboro, Islesboro, Swan’s Island and Matinicus.

The price increase will vary depending on the island. A round trip to Islesboro, the most-traveled ferry, which now costs $10 if bought on the mainland and $5.50 if bought on the island, will go to $14 for out-of-state residents and $7 for Maine residents. Mainland passage to Vinalhaven, North Haven and Swan’s Island would increase from $17.50 to $19 for non-residents and $9.75 to $12 for residents. Frenchboro rates would increase from $11.25 to $19 for out-of-state residents and $11.25 to $12 for state residents.

Public meetings to discuss the proposed fees will be held at 6 p.m. on Jan. 23 in Vinalhaven and Jan. 29 in Islesboro and at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 30 on Swan’s Island.

Transportation officials see other advantages to the new pricing structure. It could help streamline the ferry service and possibly allow technology advances like online ordering, said ferry service manager Mark Higgins.

“We believe this is a much better way to implement the discount structure,” Higgins said. “It will allow us to have greater efficiency. We may have online ticketing, online reservations and reduce the need for future rate increases.”

If the increase is approved by the state transportation commissioner, the new prices will go into effect March 28, Higgins said.

Stone, from North Haven, agrees with a ticket price increase, but doesn’t think the state has enough data to justify shifting more of the increase onto non-residents. He also questions how the service will levy the different fees.

“They will depend on driver’s licenses to determine state residency. That seems simple, but I can think of ways of gaming that,” Stone said. “How are they going to keep the system running smoothly when the demand is high, temperatures are high and tempers are short?”

Stone and other islanders backed keeping the current pricing scheme but increasing prices across the board to raise enough revenue, he said. Currently, tickets purchased on the mainland are more expensive than those purchased on the islands.

Sonny Sprague, chairman of the Swan’s Island Board of Selectmen who also sits on the ferry service advisory board, said he was mainly concerned about the plan because it singles out summer residents who pay property taxes and return every summer. Swan’s and other islands don’t have a booming tourism trade, but seasonal homeowners make up a big chunk of property taxes – 388 of the 775 taxpayers in his town are out-of-state residents, Sprague said.

“It is my personal feeling that all taxpayers should be treated fairly on the island,” he said. Ferry service officials “look at our summer folk as tourists, but they are really not; they are part of us.”

Increased ticket prices are expected to generate $738,242 in 2020, helping to overcome a shortfall in the ferry service’s projected $11 million budget. In 2017, state ferries carried 495,000 passengers and 189,000 vehicles, according to the ferry service.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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