YARMOUTH — After strong opposition from the community, a bill that would have allowed the Chebeague Island ferry system to form a public transit district is dead.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Moriarty, D-Cumberland, said he withdrew the bill after hearing neighbors of the ferry dock on Cousins Island speak out against the bill at a March 11 special Town Council meeting.
Cousins residents believed the bill created the possibility of the now private Chebeague Transportation Co. gaining power of eminent domain, allowing it to take private land.
“It appeared that is was clear the Yarmouth (Town Council) would not support the legislation and that I would probably not have a co-sponsor in the Legislature,” Moriarty said. “The whole idea was not designed to pit one town against another. It was supposed to be designed, and we thought it was, as a neat and clean agreement.”
The legislation was specific to Chebeague Island and would have allowed the CTC to become a government entity after approval of the ferry company’s board of directors.
Chebeague Island and company officials maintained the bill was only designed to help them establish other fundraising avenues for a new vessel to replace a 25-year-old ferry.
The CTC board is in the process of converting to a nonprofit, which would provide tax-exempt status, the ability to receive tax-exempt donations and the ability to apply for specific transportation grants.
And while it could receive some grants as a nonprofit, by converting to a government entity through this bill, ferry officials said they could obtain a larger, more substantial grant from the Federal Highway Administration for ferry boat discretionary funds.
But, although those funds are only available to a public agency, the ferry system would also have to be regulated by the state for rates and operations, essentially becoming a public utility, according the FHA grant program. Moriarty’s bill did not stipulate this and therefore would not have qualified the ferry system for the federal grant.
Carol Sabasteanski, general manager of the CTC, said withdrawal of the bill is disappointing, but that the company didn’t want to push for something that neighbors strongly opposed.
“Given the concerns on the part of so many people in the area, we thought if we do something like this we need to answer long-term questions and get people more comfortable with what were doing,” she said.
Without the federal grant, the ferry system now has one less fundraising option to explore, Sabasteanski said, but will continue to look at all avenues.
“We’re pretty much just following the course we were on anyway, but without this being created as one of the options,” she said. “We thought this would be an easy option, but it obviously grew into something else and caused a lot of unhappy neighbors.”