Residents of North Haven and Islesboro say they now see hope for an end to their frustrations with the ferry service as plans progress for a new Vinalhaven ferry and ramp repairs on Islesboro.

“In theory the new ferry is slated for Vinalhaven,” said Lisa Shields of North Haven. “But when a ferry breaks down now, it invariably causes lots of problems for one island or another.”

If Vinalhaven, with its larger population, has to make do with a smaller ferry, especially during the summer months, resident and tourist traffic, as well as trucked-in provisions, become severely backed up on both islands.

“The issue for North Haven is having a safe alternative ferry,” said Shields, a member of the Ferry Service Advisory Board. “Once when one ferry broke down while another was in for routine maintenance, we ended up using a 50-year-old vessel.”

Talk of a new ferry to serve Vinalhaven began ten years ago, but three years of putting specs out to bid nationwide have come up empty. The third time bids were due on building the vessel was last September, and once again, there were no bids.

“My frustration level has boiled over,” Shields said.

“Ninety-nine percent of the reason the vessel has not been built is because boatbuilders are experiencing an historic peak,” said Jim MacLeod, manager of the Maine State Ferry Service. Hurricane Katrina and other national issues have contributed to a recent boom in American shipbuilding.

“We think we have satisfied the state’s competitive bid requirement,” MacLeod said. “I hope within a month we can go to a sole-source contract and just work with a boatyard to build it.”

MacLeod, a Maine native and graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, came to the ferry service after a career as a captain of tankers, traveling around the world.

The fact that the vessel is a new design, not the Curtis class design of previous ferries, may be another factor inhibiting shipyard bids. “Vinalhaven wanted something bigger, but North Haven would be thrilled to have another Curtis class vessel,” Shields said.

At 154 feet long, the new ferry, to be named Captain E. Frank Thompson, is shorter than Islesboro’s 166-foot Margaret Chase Smith but larger than the vessel it will replace, the 130-foot Governor Curtis, one of Vinalhaven’s two ferries.

North Haven’s ferry, the Captain Neal Burgess, is nearly 20 years old “and it’s one of the newest ferries,” said Shields. “The process for this new vessel has taken 10 years so far, and it’s not even being built yet, so we really need to start planning for the next ferry now.”

The Thompson, with a pricetag of $7.5 million, will carry 22 cars, or two tractor trailers and 10 cars. If the current ferry carries two trucks, it will accommodate only six cars. The 22-passenger capacity of the Thompson won’t be an increase, but MacLeod says it will be more comfortable and have more inside seating.

Islesboro’s ferry, the Margaret Chase Smith, turned 20 in mid-October and MacLeod agreed planning and funding for a replacement should start now.

Shey Conover, Islesboro resident, member of the island’s ramp repair committee and a GIS specialist with the Island Institute, hopes construction to rebuild the island’s ferry ramps will begin soon. “At first we thought we would have to shut down the ramps for six to eight weeks for repairs,” said Conover. “Since meeting with the Department of Transportation in September we learned it will only be four weeks, so we think things will come out all right now.”

“People still won’t be happy about it, but we don’t have much choice,” she added. However, at first the DOT suggested repairs be done during July and August to make use of the longer days, but “the outcry in the community let us know it wasn’t feasible.”

Construction is slated to begin in October 2008, and not a minute too soon, Conover said. The ramps or “bridges” are the structures that rise and fall to accommodate tides and traffic.

“Most bridges have a life expectancy of 50 years. They get yearly maintenance, but if nothing is done soon, ours will have to be weight-limited and it takes a year to set up for contractors to do the work in the least amount of time.”

The water taxi Quicksilver may fill in for passenger service during the shutdown, but the committee is still working with the state to determine how to get trucks to the island.

Money has been raised through state bond issues for several ferry service projects including a 400-foot pier at the ferry terminal in Rockland and pen repair at Matinicus, both under construction now.

Islanders have experienced two rate hikes in the past couple of years as the state tries to strike a 50-50 balance between state funding and passenger fares to support the ferry service.

“We need our ferries. The islands contribute a lot to Maine’s economy, and to Maine’s image,” said Shields. “Meanwhile, I think the Rockland folks do a terrific job of keeping these vessels together with duct tape and bubble gum.”