Casco Bay Lines staff and finance committee members say it's past time to raise ticket prices for the ferry service that serves the bay's six island communities, citing a ballooning deficit in its operations.
The Casco Bay Lines finance committee on Wednesday reviewed three budget scenarios that would raise rates anywhere from 8% to 16%, and two of them would have also reduced staff by 10% and 12%, as well as a $200,000 cut to terminal security and a 2.5% to 3% reduction in trips.
“It’s been 14 years. That’s unheard of in anything else,” said Hank Berg, general manager. “It’s time.”
Neither the finance committee nor the staff was interested in cutting personnel. But most agreed that it was time to look into raising prices, and at least two members of the committee urged action for the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
Chris Hoppin, a public member of the finance committee, suggested adopting an electronic ticket system, which has been in discussion for over a decade, to introduce the new fares.
“I’m very concerned about our continuing delay of raising ticket prices, especially now we’re in the middle of August, we’ve missed the summer season of all the day trippers. … The sooner the better.”
Casco Bay Lines is largely funded by regular ferry service. The remaining revenue comes from specialty offerings like cruises and tours as well as state and federal funds.
The agency's initial fiscal year 2024 proposed budget, which Berg said is already fully funded, is expected to break even.
The service is projecting about $6 million in revenue next year, up 6.2% from this year. But expenses are also expected to increase by about 5% to $10.5 million, leaving the service with a $4.4 million net loss. An increase in funding from the Federal Transit Administration is expected to make up the difference.
But Jean Hoffman, chair of the finance committee, said she's wary of relying on federal subsidies.
Casco Bay Lines has been operating at a deficit for some time, she said, but the numbers have started to balloon.
“Spending twice as much as you take in, for Casco Bay Lines, is dangerous,” she said. “The availability to federal dollars is by no means guaranteed.”
But the details of how they might bump up revenue still need to be worked out.
Hoffman suggested a flat fare for all the islands, rather than the current fare structure, which has passenger tickets for Peaks Island at $7.70 round-trip and higher rates for the other islands, capping out at $11.55 for Cliff Island. An even fare, she said, could also help bring tourists to other islands, rather than just Peaks, which currently sees the vast majority of visitors.
Casco Bay Lines had just over 1 million riders in 2022 between the regular ferry service and tours. Of those, about 737,000 were traveling to and from Peaks Island.
Instead of prices per island, perhaps they could increase tickets across the board, offering discounts for frequent users who use the ferry beyond a certain threshold. They cannot offer a specific fare for residents because that would jeopardize federal funding.
“The number of day trippers to Peaks is astronomically bigger than it was in the past. People are often shocked by how low the price is,” she said.
There was also discussion of consolidating some of the trips “down bay” to the other islands, rather than running multiple, nearly empty boats 15 to 20 minutes apart.
Trips to Peaks Island net Casco Bay Lines, on average, about $2.2 million per year. Trips to the other islands, however, cost the service nearly $1 million.
The finance committee has two more meetings, Sept. 7 and Sept. 21, before the board of directors is scheduled to meet for the last time this fiscal year, Sept. 28.
Berg cautioned against trying to push out large changes too quickly. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30, so they have just a six-week window.
“These are pretty extreme changes in a pretty short period of time” with impacts on both island residents and staff, he said. “We are not in a financial situation that requires remediation right now.”
He recommended approving the staff’s 2024 budget as written, giving them plenty of time to analyze potential changes to the fare structure and ferry schedule.
But Hoffman, who said she was feeling “a bit like a groundhog,” pushed back and said they had the same conversation last year, when approving a budget with a deficit too big for comfort. At that time, they requested three budgetary scenarios that included savings of $1 million to $2 million, which precipitated the three scenarios in question, neither of which was optimal.
“I’m fearful that if we approve this budget that we won’t actually see changes this year because we’re not forcing it and we’re doing what we did last year,” she said.
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