CHESTER— Residents called for compromise Wednesday at an informational meeting on a proposal to double fares for the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, urging state Department of Transportation officials to consider a smaller increase in the fare for crossing the Connecticut River on the historic ferry. About 40 residents, most of them from Chester and Lyme, turned out for the session at the Chester Meeting House.
Two years after a move to close the state’s two seasonal river ferries drew widespread public opposition, DOT has proposed a doubling of the fares for the Chester-Hadlyme and Glastonbury-Rocky Hill ferries from $3 to $6 for vehicles and $1 to $2 for walk-on passengers. Monthly coupon books for frequent users would also double from $40 to $80. Informational meetings on the proposal were held this week in Chester and Rocky Hill.
DOT Commissioner James Redeker told the crowd that while ridership on the two ferries has remained steady since 2011, the operating deficit for the service has increased to about $650,000 per year, and would remain around $500,000 per year even with a doubling of the fares. Redeker said the state has spent $499,000 over the past two years to install new engines in three of the ferry boats. He said fares for the ferries have not increased since August 2003.
But the commissioner also stressed that a final decision to double the fares has not yet been made. “This was really just a stalking horse proposal that was put out to get some feedback,” Redeker said, adding that the department understands the value of the historic seasonal ferries for tourism in Connecticut. “We’re not insisting the ferries should make money,” he said.
At Redeker’s urging, several residents offered suggestions for a smaller increase. Curt Michael, president of the Hadlyme Public Hall Association, suggested starting with a fare of $4 or $4.50 for vehicles, and $2 for walk-on passengers. The Hadlyme Public Hall Association had circulated petitions against the fare increase that garnered more than 900 signatures.
Elected officials also objected to the amount of the increase, while also acknowledging that a smaller fare hike may be needed to sustain the service. Chester First Selectman Edmund Meehan and Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno each said the boards of selectmen in the two towns has approved resolutions opposing the fare increase. Meehan also presented a statement from the 17-town Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments opposing the increase and calling for completion of a “cost benefit analysis” before any fare hikes are implemented.
Meehan said a doubling of the fare to $6 per vehicle “would be counterproductive,” and could lead to a decrease in ridership that would jeopardize the future of the ferries. Eno agreed, declaring “we want to build ridership, not chase them away.”
With the two informational hearings completed, DOT officials are expected to review options and public input before announcing a final decision later this year on any fare hikes for the two river ferries.