Six islands on the Maine coast are served by the Maine State Ferry Service, a branch of the Maine Department of Transportation. The Ferry Service is currently facing a crisis of cost, having watched its costs escalate $2.3 million since 2005, according to an April 2010 business plan. The source of the higher costs are easy to find: homeland security requirements, high fuel prices and the costs of maintaining an aging fleet. What isn’t so clear is how to address the issue. State law mandates that 50 percent of Ferry Service revenue must come from users, so the Ferry Service is limited in how it can bring in revenue. While MaineDOT struggles to maintain costs, rates have risen considerably since 2005 and are projected to rise as much as 10 percent per year in the next few years. Island Indicators 2010, a status report on Maine’s islands recently released by the Island Institute, calculated that the cost of a ferry trip to the mainland and back for a family of four can cost anywhere from $14 to $100 depending on the island. Right in the middle of that cost spread lies Frenchboro.

At around eight miles offshore, the 70 year-round residents of Frenchboro struggle with one of the most restrictive ferry schedules of any year-round island. During the winter, Frenchboro has only three state-run ferry trips per week, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday-none of which are round-trip. A round-trip passenger-only ferry runs Fridays from April to November, but during the winter residents must make do with the restricted car ferry schedule. According to Island Indicators 2010, the cost of the trip is $35 for a family of four. Of the other islands served by the state ferry service, only Matinicus has fewer and more expensive scheduled runs, but Matinicus has the advantage of a regular daily flight to the mainland.

The inability to make a single-day trip to the mainland for appointments, grocery shopping, and other life-maintenance activities is inconvenient at best, crippling at worst. For such trips, most residents go off on the Wednesday morning trip and return Thursday afternoon, requiring an overnight stay off-island. When the family involved has children, the schedule means two full days of school must be missed. For a time, the school board tried to accommodate these trips by closing school Wednesdays and Thursdays for one week every month, but it was too difficult for all the families to coordinate their schedules with the school, and the effort was dropped.

Even more difficult than getting residents off-island is bringing non-residents on. It can be challenging to recruit carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other workers to come to the island when they will need to stay overnight. This is an especial burden for the school. “We can’t provide therapies or other special services because teachers don’t want to spend the night,” says Tammy DesJardins, a member of the school board. “And many of these specialists are paid by the hour. It would be amazingly expensive to do that.” The school guidance counselor is able to work with students using a polycom system from nearby Mount Desert Island, but the system is in a public location and would not be appropriate for one-on-one work. “Our inability to provide these services could put us in a bind with the state,” says DesJardins.

DesJardins, who is also the alternate member of the Ferry Service Advisory Board from Frenchboro, has recently taken up their cause with the Maine State Ferry Service in an attempt to add one year-round, round-trip day to the schedule. While adding a round-trip run seems like a straightforward request, and DesJardins admits that the Ferry Service has been responsive, there are complications. Frenchboro is one of the few state-served islands that does not have its own assigned ferry. Instead, they share the nineteen-year-old Captain Henry Lee with Swans Island. For Frenchboro to gain a trip, the schedule requires Swans to give one up. Finding a scheduled run that Swans’ residents are willing give up has proven challenging. A working group of Ferry Service staff and representatives from both islands has been formed to try to find compromise on the issue.

The challenge that Frenchboro must address highlights the difficulties facing islands in managing ferry service, whether public or private. To support existing residents and draw new ones, reliable and convenient access to the island is critical, but the ferry service is required to balance fiscal responsibility and the needs of a far-flung customer base with individual island needs.. The Ferry Service’s business plan outlines its intention to find that balance, and Frenchboro must find some space in that plan.