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Public Utilities Commission delays vote on probe of Casco Bay Lines

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Public Utilities Commission delays vote on probe of Casco Bay Lines

PORTLAND — The Maine Public Utilities Commission wants more information from the public and Casco Bay Lines before it decides whether to open an investigation into last year's fare hikes by the ferry operator.

The commission was expected to vote Monday, Jan. 25, on a recommendation from PUC staff to decline opening the investigation, which was requested by island residents in April 2009 after ferry tickets and shipping rates went up.

An adult ticket during peak season increased between 95 cents and $1.05, and 35 to 45 cents in the off season, depending on the destination. A 50-cent fuel surcharge was dropped from ticket prices in September 2009. Freight costs increased 8.6 percent.

Islanders submitted a petition signed by nearly 300 people to the PUC, making several claims of misreported and poor budgeting. Among the claims:

• Operating costs in the budget were too high.

• Revenues received by Casco Bay Lines were not sufficiently accounted for and tracked.

• And whether the ferry line appropriately assigned costs between scheduled and chartered services.

The initial finding by PUC staff, filed Dec. 30, 2009, found the majority of the concerns were without merit.

However, the probe took issue with Casco Bay Lines inclusion of $200,000 in cash reserves in its operating budget. Staff also encouraged the ferry service to keep closer track of ticket revenue and to continue exploring two-way ticketing and electronic ticketing. Passenger tickets are now collected only on trips departing the mainland.

Staff also suggested Casco Bay Lines provide passengers with specific measurements for freight costs, instead of just charging by "small, medium or large" designations.

Several islanders filed additional comments with the PUC after the initial findings were published. State Rep. Herb Adams, a Portland Democrat, also sent a letter to the PUC Jan. 13 urging commissioners to undertake an impartial review of the issues raised by petitioners. He said island residents often have questions concerning rates, rate setting, bookkeeping and management at the ferry line.

Casco Bay Lines recently hired a new general manager, Hank Berg. He replaced Catherine Debo, who resigned in June after 2 1/2 years in the position.

Operations Manager Nick Mavodones, who is also the mayor of Portland, attended Monday's PUC meeting.

"It sounded like they wanted to give (the public) some sort of way to comment additionally," Mavodones said Tuesday. He said the ferry service has provided the PUC with budget and operating information since the investigation began last May, and that there has been extensive correspondence.

Submitted information regarding the investigation is available on the PUC Web site, state.me.us/mpuc/. Select the online filing link, and then the virtual case file link and enter 2009-119 as the docket number.

In a release from the PUC, Commission Chairwoman Sharon Reishus said "Although the recommended decision was the result of considerable effort by staff, we would like to afford the public with an opportunity to address some of the remaining issues before we make a final decision."

No date was announced for the public hearing.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net