A ferry, the Margaret Chase Smith, motors through the channel between Warren Island State Park (background) and Grindle Point Light after departing the dock at Isleboro. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Islesboro residents are painting a grim picture of the future of the commuter island community following a steeper than expected increase in their state ferry ticket prices.

While an increase was expected, the approved rates represent a 118-percent jump in the cost of round-trip tickets for a vehicle and driver, residents say, which could lead to an exodus of year-round residents.

Maine State Ferry Service, which falls under Maine Department of Transportation oversight, has been considering increased rates for some time to offset a projected budget shortfall. Its original proposal to increase the rates to Penobscot Bay islands would have charged different rates based on residency. However, following public outcry, the transportation department reconsidered and approved a flat-rate increase to begin May 21.

Starting May 21, round-trip tickets on all ferries will cost $11 for an adult, $5.50 for children and $30 for a driver and passenger vehicle, a significant decrease over current prices for tickets purchased on the mainland. Tickets to Vinalhaven, North Haven and Swans Island will cost $6.50 less for adults and almost $20 less for a vehicle than the current prices. The new fares are slightly higher than current on-island tickets, about $1.25 more for an adult and $2.25 more for a car.

Currently, adult tickets purchased on Islesboro cost $5.50, the lowest price in the service and 43 percent less than tickets to North Haven, Vinalhaven or Swans Island. The new fare structure will double passenger fares to Islesboro and more than double the cost of bringing a vehicle.

In the time since the flat-rate structure was announced, Islesboro residents have been raising concerns about the impact on their community. Selectman Gabe Pendleton said there were hearings on the original proposal, but the first time the flat-rate increases came to light was after the DOT had already approved them.

Islanders earlier this year suggested an across-the-board percentage increase to existing ticket prices to offset the budget shortfall.

Pendleton said a local passenger boat – once a more expensive way to commute to the mainland – will run alongside the ferry for the time being to offer residents an alternative.

“Every option is on the table,” he said in a phone interview. “(Selectmen) are certainly having broad conversations. We’re trying to make a good decision for the town.”

The selectman said the bulk of the increase falls on Islesboro and is based on a projected increase in ridership, which Pendleton thinks may be overly optimistic. He objected to the short time frame – a month – given by Maine DOT before the rates take effect and said that doesn’t give residents adequate time to plan for ways to pay the higher ferry fees. “I anticipate a legal challenge to DOT on the rates,” Pendleton said.

The ferry service also services Vinalhaven, North Haven, Swans Island, Frenchboro and Matinicus. “There are a lot of people who aren’t Islesboro residents who are going to be affected by this,” Pendleton said.

Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt sent a letter to Islesboro Town Manager Janet Anderson recently in which he threatened to shut down service to the island because of threatening comments heard by some workers. Resident David Mahan said he wondered what kind of person would take out their frustrations on workers, who are not responsible for the fare increases.

“It turns out, it may have been me,” he wrote in an email to The Republican Journal. “A few days ago, I jokingly asked if they gave you guys bulletproof vests and stated that people are angry about the ferry situation and I hoped they weren’t taking it out on the ferry crew. I was trying to convey my support for the crew, as they work very hard and have to put up with a lot of grief quite often. I hoped they were not being verbally abused, as they are obviously not part of the decision-making process. My words were apparently greatly misinterpreted and for that, I sincerely apologize.”

Mahan said he believes there were no legitimate threats made and said he would have liked to see Bernhardt proceed “with a little more caution before issuing his inflammatory threat to shut our ferry down.” Several other residents also defended islanders and said no threats were made. Apologies were offered immediately for any misunderstandings, residents say, and the issue has been resolved.

Other residents shared stories of hoping to retire to Islesboro, or move there to be closer to family. Ann Charlton said she and her husband hope to move to the island where she spent childhood summers and can trace ancestors.

“When I heard of the 118-percent increase in ferry prices for Islesboro residents I was shocked and deeply saddened,” she wrote in an email to Maine DOT Legislative Liaison Meghan Russo. “If the ferry rates rise that amount we will not be able to move to Islesboro. My husband still works and was planning on commuting to work in the Portland area. We love the island so much that we are willing to find a way to make it work even with such a long commute. An increase in fares that is so high would make our dream impossible.

“Our story is one example of how a town with less than 700 year-round residents will have two less next year if the rate hike takes place as planned,” she said.

Ellen Berry of Camden hopes to move to the island to be with her son and his wife, who are expecting their first child. In the meantime, she travels on the ferry at least three times per week, sometimes four, at an average cost of $40.50 weekly. As of May 21, it will cost her $90 per week, she said. “I have no ability or finances to change my expenses that much,” Berry said.

Jan Davidson said her husband has commuted to work on Islesboro for 15 years. She said they hope to move to the island when she retires but said “the most paranoid pessimist would not have included in their retirement planning a 120-percent fare increase, levied without warning, on a commuter island.”

Businesses on the island, too, will be negatively impacted, Diana Roberts said. Her husband, Stanley Pendleton, owns Pendleton Yacht Yard, one of the island’s largest employers. “It’s our lifeblood,” Roberts said. “A majority of our workers commute (from the mainland).”

In addition, she noted, the business shuttles trucks, trailered boats and freight, as well as making trips for parts, canvas and other supplies on a regular basis. “You run out of milk or baby formula or Pampers (on the mainland), so you run out and get what you need,” Roberts said. “We don’t have that option. We need the same things you need. We already stock up on our weekly errand trips as if the Apocalypse were nigh, so don’t tell us to buy two of everything and prepare to go off-island less.

“These proposed rates will sabotage our island community. It’s challenging enough to live on an island; you guys are making it impossible.”