State Ferry Service Manager John Anders wisely backed away from a proposal to change the way cars line up at the Rockland ferry terminal. The proposal, born in January and kicked around by the Maine State Ferry Advisory Board for months, appeared bound for implementation in late May. But islanders, who argued that the changes would make their transportation challenges much more difficult, gave Anders an earful.
The proposal is dead in the water for this year, Department of Transportation officials said, and there is no reason to believe otherwise. But ferry managers may be back with another attempt to streamline the terminal; in fact, it’s likely, especially if a rebounding economy brings more summer visitors to the islands.
Should this mean an inevitable return to conflict, and a deeper distrust by islanders of the state-run transportation system? It doesn’t have to.
One obvious step—already being seized upon by leaders on Vinalhaven and North Haven—is to beef up the citizen ferry advisory board, both in membership numbers and influence. Nick Battista, director of marine programs for the Island Institute (publisher of The Working Waterfront), researched the legislation that created the board and found that the framework already exists for it to be a more robust body. North Haven Town Manager Joe Stone and others are exploring this option.
There is historic precedence for this influence. When voters defeated a state proposal in the early 1990s to widen the Maine Turnpike, the referendum also created regional transportation advisory committees. These large, citizen groups served almost as boards of directors for DOT’s regional managers, gathering to hear and discuss paving, widening, bridge repair and the like.
DOT officials, understandably, found the mechanism clumsy and complained privately that it mired them in debate when work needed to be done. But sometimes DOT needs to be more deliberative, and work to find what planners call “context sensitive” solutions.
The key to success is for ferry advisory board members to faithfully attend meetings and inform islanders of developments, even when the issues are mundane.
It’s a perennial tension. Transportation planners and managers want to carry people, freight and vehicles from point A to point B as fast and as safely as possible. The first solution they see on their drawing board is a wide, straight line. But if that line is imposed on a pretty, curving, tree-lined road, it changes the character of a town.
To be fair, the ferry terminal area is busy, and can be confusing to first-time and infrequent visitors. A driver late for the ferry, weaving around the serpentine lines, which may include an 18-wheeler, could put a pedestrian running for a boat in peril.
And the systems used by islanders to keep a “line car” holding a place, then moving it out and replacing it by parallel parking in the opening, must be akin to fingernails on a chalkboard to a traffic engineer’s mind.
But the islanders are right in asserting that the existing systems aren’t broke, and so don’t need fixing.
Better staffing in the lot, clearer signage, more stringent rules during July and August and adding more 24-hour reservation slots are the first logical—and maybe only—steps that are needed.