Advocates urge Islanders to fight ferry fare hikes

Following news that the Island could see higher ferry fares and reduced service, Islanders — concerned the changes could hurt Vashon — are scrambling to convince lawmakers they should not implement the cuts.

In response to the governor’s proposal last week to raise ferry fares by 10 percent in addition to already proposed service cuts, Vashon’s ferry advisory committee has teamed up with the community council’s transportation committee and the Vashon Maury Island Chamber of Commerce, looking to concerned residents and business owners to sign petitions, write letters to the governor and assist with lobbying efforts in Olympia.

Kari Ulatoski, who chairs the transportation committee and is spearheading the campaign, hopes to convince lawmakers that the proposed changes would have wide implications for Islanders, from lengthening commute times and reducing access to medical services to creating a financial hardship for local residents and businesses.

“It’s a matter of educating. I think lobbying efforts need to be focused,” she said. “They need to be more than ‘Please don’t do this. I don’t want to wait in line.’”

Deborah Richards, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, agreed, saying the financial ramifications of the proposed cuts go beyond simply paying more to ride the ferry. Higher rates, she said, will likely mean higher food costs and other increased expenses for Vashon’s residents.

“The combination of rate hikes and longer wait times on the dock will significantly increase transportation costs,” she said. “And that will ultimately result in an increased cost of goods to everyone on Vashon.”

In addition, Richards said, local businesses could see less off-Island revenue if it becomes more expensive and less convenient for tourists to visit Vashon.

“The businesses are going to get hit hard. The community has to understand the changes and how they are going to affect them,” she said.

Richards is also concerned that the increased cost of living on Vashon could drive some to move off the Island.

“That will affect business if we lose the people who live here,” she said. “That could be really big.”

Linda Bianchi, co-owner of Windermere Real Estate, said it’s likely that some residents will choose to move off the Island if commuting becomes more expensive and difficult, though it’s impossible to know how many.

“There will be people who say, ‘I just can’t do this,’” she said.

Bianchi, who has been a real estate agent on Vashon for 16 years, has seen ferry fares increase several times in the past and witnessed the effect on Island real estate.

She said the proposed changes would make Vashon less appealing to buyers for a time, possibly lowering property values. However, she said, people would eventually get used to the changes and real estate would bounce back.

“It does affect us temporarily, but in the long term the population learns how to adjust to the new service and new cost, either by not commuting as much or by carpooling, and it doesn’t affect values at that point,” she said.

However, Bianchi also expressed concern that cuts proposed this time could be worse than what the Island has seen in the past.

“You adjust, but the fact is it does affect our lives. There will be a threshold where people say enough is enough, I can’t live like this, and I’m moving on.”

David Moseley, head of Washington State Ferries, said that a 10 percent fare hike is not at all unheard of in Washington.

“We have raised fares this much and more on occasion in very difficult financial times similar to these,” he said.

Moseley said that while WSF officials recognize the proposed changes could cause financial hardship for some, they had to face the difficult reality that the ferry system cannot keep operating at a deficit, transferring tens of millions of dollars each year from the motor vehicle fund to keep the ferries afloat.

“The governor is recognizing the ferry system is not sustainable,” he said.

Michael Soltman, superintendent of Vashon School District, said the increased fares and reduced service could affect Vashon’s commuter students and teachers, especially if sailings become less reliable and don’t line up with the bus schedule. However, he was most concerned about the increased costs associated with transporting students on and off the Island for the many athletic and academic trips that occur each month.

The governor’s budget, made public last Wednesday, also included severe cuts in education that would affect Vashon.

“We’re going to bleeding on both ends,” Soltman said. “We’re going to be bleeding on the revenue side and the expense side with increased ferry fares.”

Ulatoski said some businesses and community members are already getting behind the Ferry Advisory Committee’s efforts to draw lawmakers’ attention to the cuts’ potentially harmful affects on Vashon. Volunteers have already gathered 500 signatures on a petition to be presented to Gov. Gregoire and the chairs of the senate and house transportation committees.

The last time Vashon was threatened with ferry cuts, Ulatoski said, the committee submitted a petition signed by 5,000 Islanders and over 3,000 non-Islanders.

This time, she hopes to see volunteers again gather 5,000 signatures from Islanders and at least another 5,000 from members of other ferry-dependent communities by Jan. 15.

“I’d be really happy if we could duplicate our efforts of two years ago,” she said.

Richards, meanwhile, is drafting a letter to the governor from the Chamber of Commerce on behalf of Island businesses and is encouraging businesses and residents to do the same.

“A lot of people trust that the job is going to be done, but it can’t be done by a handful of people,” Richards said. “When its something this important, the whole community has to get behind it.”

Ulatoski said the committee is currently compiling information to distribute to those who may need help writing a letter.

She believes the key to influencing legislators, especially those from non-ferry dependent communities, is to convince them that ferries are a critical part of the state’s transportation infrastructure and that the proposed cuts could have ramifications not only on Vashon, but across Washington.

She hopes lawmakers will develop a funding mechanism that will benefit not only the ferry system, but, for example, fund a new highway needed in Spokane.

“We need to work together to make the state more of one Washington, connecting neighborhoods and areas to access goods and services we need to be prosperous as a state.”

Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee needs volunteers to collect signatures for a petition to state lawmakers. Blank petitions can be picked up at and returned to the Vashon Library, the chamber of commerce and Vashon Bookshop. Petitions can also be signed at those locations.

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