Jun. 11—Peaks Island residents will be offered priority boarding on public ferries to the island starting this month, despite calls for a regulatory investigation that could change or eliminate the program.
Under the new program, people who live full time on Peaks Island or pay taxes on property there, along with their spouses, partners and dependents, can apply for $10 annual passes that allow them to board ferries to the island before other passengers. Pass-holders still need regularly priced tickets to board.
The one-year pilot program starts June 19. The Casco Bay Island Transit District, the agency that operates ferries under the name Casco Bay Lines between mainland Portland and nearby islands, approved the pass program this spring. Peaks Island residents have pushed for priority boarding for years, in response to increasing tourist traffic to the island, packed ferries and crowds that sometimes make running errands and commuting to work and school a headache.
"I have been in support of the priority boarding pass — it is so essential to not hating where you live all summer," said Lauren Webster, a full-time island resident.
Webster commutes to the mainland five days a week for her marketing job in Portland, then usually once on the weekend to run errands.
Crowds of summer tourists and day-trippers, especially on weekend afternoons, make the trip unpleasant and stressful, Webster said. She's never missed a ferry because of overcrowding, but she knows islanders who have. In 2019, ridership to Peaks Island totaled 780,408, an increase of more than 9 percent compared to five years prior.
Under the pass program, residents must arrive at least 15 minutes before the ferry leaves to be allowed to board before other passengers.
"I have high hopes — I want the program to be a success, because as a resident it is so desperately needed," Webster said. "We also pay taxes, and Casco Bay Lines is our public transportation system."
In a policy statement on their website, ferry authorities said the program will "not impede the public's right to travel nor consistently deny ferry service access to nonresidents and will have, at most, a negligible or minor impact on the ability of nonresidents to use its ferry services."
But a citizen petition pushing for a regulatory investigation into the proposed rate change could sink the priority boarding plan.
The transit district is regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, and fare changes require regulatory oversight. As part of the process, ratepayers may petition the PUC to conduct an investigation of proposed rate changes. A petition with the required number of signatures was filed in mid-May.
Andrew Doukas, a Portland resident who owns a cottage on the island, said he organized the petition to stop an undemocratic and potentially discriminatory permit system. In a comment filed with the commission, Doukas alleged the price of the permits would not fully cover increased operational costs associated with the program, would unfairly shift costs to other passengers and would restrict public access to the island.
"I just don't want to see Peaks Island become a gated community," Doukas said in an interview. "It is part of Portland and everyone in Portland, and Maine, should have access to it."
The permit fee would not make enough to pay for ferry officials' estimated $55,000 cost of the program, he said.
"It is a token fee; it really moves the bulk of the cost of the passes onto other riders like me, who don't support the program," Doukas said.
In his request for a formal investigation, submitted last week, Doukas said the PUC should deny the ferry agency's rate change request and force it to resubmit a fee that covers the increased costs of the program, which he estimated to be at least $100 per person.
The PUC opened a summary investigation in late May to determine whether the complaints merit a formal investigation. In the meantime, the program will be allowed to start but could later be rescinded, commission staff said.
The transit district, in a letter to the commission, said it was concerned the petition could seriously disrupt the planned priority boarding pass. Postponing or canceling the program could result in "significant public confusion, unhappiness and anger," it added.
The ferry agency has received about 600 pass applications and the program is limited to 1,500 passes total. Its largest ferry, the Machigonne II, holds about 400 passengers and 12 vehicles.
In March, ferry staff proposed a $42 per-pass price, which was lowered to $20 by the agency's finance committee, and then to $10 when the board of directors approved the program in April.
The $55,000 cost estimate was based on 1,305 permits and included some fixed costs, which means it is not as simple as dividing the number of applications by the initial estimate to get the per-permit cost, a ferry agency spokeswoman said.
In a statement, Casco Bay Island Transit District General Manager Hank Berg said it was moving ahead with the program but would comply if the PUC determines an investigation is needed.
Demand for Peaks Island service had increased year-over-year before the coronavirus pandemic, Berg added. Some ferries run at capacity, but that happens at predictable times during the summer, and the ferry service adds supplemental runs whenever possible to shorten passenger wait times. A backup vessel will be standing by every weekend this summer to assist, he said.
"This residential boarding pilot program was something that Peaks Islanders asked us to consider several years ago," Berg said. "Following this initial pilot year, we're going to be looking closely at actual costs and benefits. Ultimately, the board will need to determine whether it continues the program in future years."