PEAKS ISLAND — It’s a warm summer day and you decide it’s a “finest kind” of day to take the ferry to Peaks Island. Instead of the Machigonne II, with a capacity of 399 passengers, you board a new, larger ferry capable of carrying 599 passengers. If you think about it all, you wonder, “What was all the fuss about a larger ferry?”
And it’s true, that in the big picture, there are far larger issues in this world than the passenger capacity of the new Peaks Island ferry. And like concerns on Munjoy Hill or in the West End, it’s sometimes difficult for people who don’t live in one particular Portland neighborhood to share the concerns of other neighborhoods.
Fast forward to November, when that new, 599-capacity ferry will routinely carry 60 passengers, and to February, where I’m often one among 15 passengers on a late-evening ferry. Does the cost of maintaining a larger ferry matter?
In a recent Portland Press Herald op-ed, Casco Bay Island Transit District board members Scott Johnston and Dan Doane claimed that “the cost difference between running a modern 399-passenger-capacity vessel and running a 599-passenger-capacity vessel is negligible.” Can that possibly be true? Are the fuel costs of moving the increased tonnage of a larger boat, 200 extra passengers and additional vehicles back and forth to Peaks negligible?
Then there are employee and maintenance costs. Does the Coast Guard require additional crew with a larger capacity ferry? Yes. Is it more expensive to dry dock a larger ferry? To paint it? To maintain it? Yes. Yes. Yes.
How much? We simply don’t know. The transit district hasn’t done a cost analysis.
When revenues increase each year, perhaps the increased cost of running a 599-capacity ferry could be covered. But recessions are inevitable. With the severe recession of 2008, the number of passengers traveling to Peaks Island dropped by 4% and didn’t reach pre-2008 levels for four years. Many of the employees at Casco Bay Lines have good union jobs. You can’t downsize these critical jobs in a recession and you wouldn’t want to even if you could. Safety comes first. The deficit created by a larger ferry in tough economic times will lead to higher ticket prices for all of us.
Instead of designing a larger ferry as a response to the 1%-2% of summer trips that are currently overcrowded, why not look at innovative solutions to avoid overcrowding? Would a reservation system help? Could an existing ferry, the Bay Mist, be reserved as the designated wedding and large-event boat to help free up space during the weeks of peak summer demand?
And yes, there is concern on Peaks that the balance between tourism and year-round residents will be tipped in favor of tourism. Similar to Portland, there’s a danger of being overloved. Many of us prefer that the pace out here remain slower, that our children can safely ride their bikes on island roads, that our grammar school remain open because young families want to live here.
Several island surveys have shown that 70% of us don’t want a new, much larger ferry. That’s a remarkable number for an island where the saying goes, “If two Peaks Islanders meet, there are three arguments.”
Is the Casco Bay Island Transit District “too big to fail”? History is a good lesson here. When the original Casco Bay Lines declared bankruptcy in 1981, the current transit district was created through emergency state legislative action. Think that can’t happen again? Yes, it can.
Let’s be frugal. Mainers are known for that. Our trusty Machigonne II is near the end of its service and it’s been reliable, economical and dependable. Our new ferry should mirror the economies of