Maine DOT refuses to postpone ferry ticket increase; Islesboro to forge ahead with appeal

Posted:  Thursday, May 17, 2018 - 10:00pm
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UPDATE: The Maine Department of Transportation has declined to adopt a 90-day stay of the new ferry ticket structure, as had been requested by Islesboro, thus sending the situation closer to legal wrangling between a Maine municipality and a state agency. Despite the appeal by the island selectmen and support from mainland towns, the DOT will proceed with its May 21 changeover to new ferry fees, which will affect Islesboro residents and commuters the most of all the islands served by the Maine State ferries.

The DOT informed Islesboro of its decision May 17, and Islesboro said the next step will be the formal appeal of the ticket schedule.

The letter, signed by DOT legal counsel Jim Billings, said the stay request was denied because: “there has not been a showing ion irreparable harm where rates for services are the issue. This is a classic case for money damages rather than inductive relief: if you are successful on appeal anyone who has overpaid for a ticket could be refunded any difference in fair. It seems highly unlikely that anyone on Islesboro is going to undergo irreparable injury for paying a few dollars more per ferry ticket while this case is pending for a matter of months.”

See attached PDF for full letter.

He also said the DOT employed a “fair and thorough public process” for setting the new rates. 


 

LINCOLNVILLE — Attorneys for the Town of Islesboro have asked for a 90-day stay of the state’s implentation of its new ferry fees, pending an official appeal, and on Monday evening, May 14, the Lincolnville Selectmen agreed to support the effort, as did Rockport’s Select Board. Both towns will submit letters stating so to the Maine Department of Transportation. Camden, meanwhile, will consider a similar move this evening when its Select Board convenes for a regularly scheduled meeting.

Attorney Mary Costigan, with the Portland-based firm Bernstein Shur, filed a request for stay of Maine State Ferry Service Tariff 8 on May 14, addressing her memo to DOT Commissioner on behalf of the Town of Islesboro.

“...The town and its residents will suffer irreparable injury if the proposed tariff goes into effect May 21, 2018, as planned,” and she warned that Islesoboro would likely succeed in an appeal the town also intends to file, asking for relief from the new ferry rate schedule.

She also warned the DOT that the process employed in April by the DOT to raise the rates violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

New ferry ticket prices were released April 17, when the DOT, through the Maine State Ferry Service office, announced that it will implement a new flat rate ticket pricing structure at the Maine State Ferry Service May 21, standardizing ferry prices across the entire system.

In doing so, however, the rates have increased dramatically, said Costigan, in her stay request.

Islesoboro, she said, will suffer debilitating effects, forcing many residents to move off the island. 

“One example of the impact of the new rate structure is the increase in cost for a family to go to the mainland,’ she wrote. “The cost of a family with two children to go to the mainland will increase from $26.25 to $52. This cost will be added to every doctor’s appointment, grocery trip, music lessons, banking, etc. The dramatic increase in cost will also push out many of the residents who are on fixed incomes as they will no longer be able to afford to pay the ferry fare to attend off-island doctor’s appointments.”

The outcry from various island communities serviced by state ferries (North Haven, Vinalhaven, Frenchboro, Swans Island, Islesboro and Matinicus) has continued since the new rate structure was introduced, as communities criticized not only the new ferry fees, but the process by which the DOT used to produce its new fee schedule.

According to islanders, the rate structure in Tariff No. 8 is different from the rate structure proposed by the DOT, which was vetted in public hearings. That structure established different rates for in-state and out-of-state residents.

The MSFS, a division of the MaineDOT, serves the island communities, which swell during the summer with seasonal visitors. In 2017, the MSFS served almost 700,000 passengers and 190,000 vehicles. 

But the DOT said in its press release on April 17 that, “A key component of the new rate structure is an overall decrease of more than 10 percent to the truck/freight rates to help keep the costs to Maine businesses supplying goods and services to and from the islands competitive.”
 
Islesboro argues, however, that it is a commuter island, with a strong year-round population that daily makes the one-mile crossing to Lincolnville for school, medical, work and other regular reasons. Islesboro residents not only commute to the mainland for jobs, many residents of the Midcoast travel daily on the ferry to Islesboro to work on or at the many summer cottages of the wealthy.
 
Lincolnville Selectmen agreed May 14 that its economic livelihood was intricately tied to that of Islesboro and will draft a letter to the DOT encouraging relief for the island.
 
“I understand what the DOT is trying to accomplish but I don’t agree,” said Lincolnville Selectman David Barrows, who works at Rankins in Camden and communicates with the contractors who find employment on Islesboro.. “Being where I work I see a fair amount of locals working over there.”

With a vote of 3-0 (Selectmen Jonathan Fishman and Keryn Laite, Jr., were not in attendance), the Lincolnville Selectmen agreed to “work with town administrator draft a letter supporting the town of Islesboro in this matter.”  

Likewise, Rockport’s Select Board will follow suit, as it voted on May 14.
 
On May 2, the Belfast City Council sent a letter to Bernhardt expressing concern about the rate increase, “and the inequities of treating very different ferry experiences with a one-size fits all mentality....  It will also have a defining impact on our own way of life. For hundreds of years, Islesboro and its year-round residents have been an integral part of our coastal region.”
 
Belfast told the DOT that the rate hike “will seriously and permanently undermine the ability of working Mainers to live on the island where they can continue to contribute to our long and rich and culturally significant history.”
 
The Waldo County Commissioners on May 7 also agreed to submit a letter to the DOT, saying the effects of the ticket price hike will negatively affect island and mainland residents and business.
 
They also raised an issue with the process itself of vetting the new ticket schedule.
 
“The failure to take comments and have discussions on the newly imposed rate structure is an unacceptable failure of process which must be addressed before any rate change goes into effect,” wrote the commissioners, who include Betty Johnson, of Lincolnille; William Shorey, of Searsport; and Amy Fowler, of Palermo.
 
Costigan told the DOT in her stay request that there will be no substantial harm to the general public if the decision were stayed pending the appeal.
 
The last rate increase was in 2009, she said.
 
“The irony of the proposed rate structure that also predicted an increase in ridership is that it likely will not result in increased revenue for the DOT due to a resulting decrease in ridership,” she wrote. “Thus, any harm to the public in the form of temporary loss of potential revenue is insubstantial.”
 
She asks for a prompt reply from the DOT.
 

 
 Reach editorial director Lynda Clancy and lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657