PORTLAND — Casco Bay Lines plans to add a new boat to its fleet — a $5.5 million passenger ferry paid for entirely with federal stimulus dollars. Critics, however, say the ferry line has chosen the wrong boat and should ask for a different boat or turn down the money.

The new boat would increase expenses because it would replace the fleet’s smallest boat, the 37-year-old Island Romance, said Sid Gerard, a Peaks Island resident who was a leader in a recent petition drive to block a fare increase.

At the same time, Gerard said, the new ferry wouldn’t increase revenue because it is not designed to carry cars or significant amounts of cargo — two profitable services for which demand is growing.

The new ferry, which would be 110 feet long, would replace a ferry that is 65 feet long. Unless the city moves its fireboat from the Maine State Pier, there won’t be enough space on the pier for the new ferry, said John Tracy, a veteran ferry captain.

He said Casco Bay Lines, and taxpayers, would be better off with a smaller, less expensive vessel.

“They give us $5 million, but the boat we really want is only $2 million,” he said. “So give us $2 million, and we’ll hand you back $3 million. But the government doesn’t work that way.”

Casco Bay Lines’ board of directors, which unanimously approved the grant application a year ago, rushed to apply for stimulus money to meet a federal deadline.

Because it had only a month to complete the application, the ferry line asked for a boat based on the design of its most recent purchase, the 5-year-old Aucocisco III, which can carry 399 passengers, 100 more than the Island Romance.

The stimulus money presents a great opportunity for the ferry line to get a new boat and retire an old one without any cost to ratepayers, said Patrick Flynn, president of the line’s board of directors.

Rejecting the boat now, he said, could cause long-term problems in Casco Bay Lines’ relationship with the state, which applied for the grant on behalf of the ferry line.

“I’m not saying they would hold a grudge, but I would if I was them,” Flynn said. “To me, it’s like getting a brand-new pickup truck but turning it down because it’s a Chevy and not a Ford.”

Time is running out for opponents, who include some longtime ferry captains and island residents who have complained about the line’s management and fare increases.

Within the next few weeks, the Maine Department of Transportation plans to ask boatyards to bid on a contract to build the ferry, which would go into service in the fall of 2011.

Critics appear to lack the votes on the ferry line’s board of directors. At a meeting a month ago, the board voted 6-3 to defeat a motion to kill the project.

Nevertheless, some of the critics are expected to voice their concerns this morning, when the directors meet to learn more about the ferry’s design.

Frank Peretti, a board member from Peaks Island who last month tried to kill the project, said he believes there is still time to change the design for the new boat so it can better meet the ferry line’s needs.

Peretti and others say the line needs a small, faster boat that can carry vehicles and more cargo than the boat being proposed.

A year ago, Peretti and the rest of the board unanimously approved the grant application. He said it was politically difficult at the time to vote “no.”

“It was always hard to turn down a free boat,” he said.

Sue Moreau, a board member and a senior official with the Maine Department of Transportation, said it was “pretty amazing” that Casco Bay Lines won the competitive grant. Only $60 million was available nationwide.

The grant required the project to be “shovel ready” and be completed within two years, which left no time to draft new design specifications, she said. That’s why the state submitted a proposal based on the design — with some modest changes — of the Aucocisco III.

At this point, Moreau said, the ferry line can only accept the project as written in the grant application or reject the money altogether.

She said that rejecting the money may damage the ferry line’s credibility with Maine’s congressional delegation and federal transportation officials, and jeopardize its ability to win federal funding in the future.

Already, she said, congressional staffers and federal officials are calling her office and asking whether they made a mistake in supporting the request.

The line’s operations manager, Nicholas Mavodones Jr. — who is also the mayor of Portland — said the new boat would save money for the ferry line.

While it would use slightly more fuel than the Island Romance, he said, it would allow him to deploy the 98-foot Maquoit II less frequently. The Maquoit II is the fleet’s biggest fuel hog because of its hull design, he said.

Moreover, he said, the Island Romance is so old that much of its steel will soon have to be replaced, at a considerable cost.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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