The Casco Bay Lines board of directors has delayed a decision on plans for a bigger ferry so it can consider other ways to manage summer crowds and take a closer look at the financial risks.

The vote Thursday for a 60-day delay comes after Peaks Islanders became increasingly vocal and critical about how a larger ferry – and more summer visitors – could change life on the island.

The new ferry could carry 200 additional passengers per trip and four additional automobiles. And many residents worry that additional pedestrian and vehicle traffic could push the island past the breaking point during the busy summer months.

“You have it in your hands to destroy our neighborhood,” Peaks Island resident Debbie Jordan pleaded. “Please don’t.”

Casco Bay Lines, which serves Peaks and seven other islands, is looking to replace the Machigonne II, which was put into service in 1987 and can carry 399 passengers and 12 vehicles to Peaks Island and back. Engineers were originally told to draft plans for a larger ferry that could carry about 600 passengers and 16 vehicles.

The new ferry is expected to cost about $10 million, with 85 percent of those costs being covered by federal funding, including a $6 million grant announced last year. The ferry was originally expected to be in service by late 2021.

The board listened to about 90 minutes of public comments Thursday morning, and only a few people spoke in support of a larger ferry. The hearing came a few days after Casco Bay Lines held a community meeting on Peaks Island that drew strong opposition to the proposed ferry size by the roughly 200 people in attendance.

According to a survey conducted by the Peaks Island Council, 96 percent of the 399 respondents wanted the new vessel to prioritize islanders’ needs. Seventy percent did not want an increase in passenger capacity, while 56 percent did not want an increase in vehicle capacity. And 79 percent expressed concerns about the possible strain on island infrastructure.

Island resident Chuck Radis recalled that during the 2008 recession Casco Bay Lines lost ridership. He said it took three to four years for ridership to recover. And he was worried that operating a larger ferry could put the transit district in a more difficult financial position during the next recession. He urged the board to consider other ways to manage demand, suggesting that wedding parties be required to charter a boat to the island.

Island resident Patricia Erikson urged the board to develop a profit-and-loss statement for a larger ferry. “If the CBL Board votes for a 600-passenger ferry without this proper business and financial modeling, then they are making an unfounded business decision that places CBL’s economic viability and island lifeways at risk,” she said.

Board member Twain Braden proposed the 60-day delay. But he also defended the integrity of the planning process and general manager Hank Berg, whom he described as a “tremendous asset.”

However, Braden shared concerns with residents who wondered whether there were other ways to deal with peak summer demand and whether a larger ferry could be sustainable year-round, or through another recession should ridership dip.

“I feel as though we need a lot more research,” Braden said. “I don’t feel like I have anywhere near enough information to figure out how to deal with demand. I think a larger boat is one part of it, but what about a reservation system for vehicles? What about preferential boarding for year-round homeowners?”

Before voting, the board entered into closed session to get legal advice from its attorney. After about an hour, the board voted 7-4 in favor of the delay.

Between now and May, the board plans to review feedback from island residents, while staff is expected to look into an electronic reservation system and draft a so-called profit-and-loss statement to ensure that a larger ferry would be financially viable in a recession. The board also is asking to formalize a plan to address infrastructure needs on the island.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the islands, said that Casco Bay Lines, state transportation officials and the city all need to work together to address congestion issues on the island. Ray also urged the board to commit to studying the impacts that increased tourism could have on the island, saying she has been in contact with someone who has done studies for national parks.

“There is concern around public safety,” Ray said. “There is concern around the experience tourists have and whether or not they will continue to visit. There is concern around the impact over-tourism can have on the experience of residents in the area. I think we know we need some infrastructure improvements.”

Mike Murray, who serves on the board and is an assistant to the city manager, said that City Manager Jon Jennings is committed to reviewing infrastructure concerns along Welch Street, which leads to the ferry landing, including travel lanes, vehicle waiting lanes, sidewalks, pedestrian queuing areas, parking lot improvements and other amenities.

The ferry makes 16 round trips a day during the summer, departing every hour from Portland and arriving 15 minutes later on Peaks. The 1.2-square-mile island is a quiet neighborhood of fewer than 1,000 residents in the offseason, but becomes a bustling tourist destination when the boat fills up in the summer.

In 2018, more than 784,000 people took the ferry to Peaks Island and the ferry hit its capacity on 23 outbound trips and 45 inbound trips, according to ridership information provided by Casco Bay Lines. That’s a 10 percent increase in ridership over the roughly 712,800 people who took the ferry to Peaks in 2014. And the ferry hit its capacity more times in 2018 than in 2017.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: randybillings

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