Ferry rates will likely climb higher than lawmakers had projected

Ferry riders may see ticket prices go up more than 5 percent in the coming year — twice the increase that was anticipated in the spring.

The state Legislature in May passed a 2.5 percent fare increase to be implemented this October and another 2.5 percent increase in October 2012 to bring in a total of $310 million in revenue over the next biennium.

However, more recent ferry projections show lower than expected ridership, meaning those rates would fail to bring in required revenue, prompting Washington State Ferries (WSF) to seek slightly higher and sooner fare hikes.

Under one of several proposals recently recommended by Washington State Ferries (WSF) and which will be voted on by the Washington State Transportation Commission, fares would increase 2.5 percent in October and another 3 percent next May.

However, other proposals made this month by the commission, which is responsible for setting ferry fares, would give some riders a price break. The surcharge for bicycles would be eliminated for those with frequent rider passes, drivers of small cars would pay less to drive on the ferry, and fewer would be required to pay oversized vehicle fares.

The commission also adopted a 25-cent surcharge to raise funds for new boats and a fuel surcharge to be implemented if fuel prices spike, both of which were recommended by state lawmakers.

Greg Beardsley, head of Vashon's Ferry Advisory Committee and a member of the state's Ferry Advisory Committee on Tariffs, said some Islanders will likely be upset to see fares go up much more quickly than they had been expecting. “And by adding the 25-cent surcharge in, it's going to be more like 5 percent in October and 3 percent in May,” he said.

But the commission has limited options to bridge the ferries' budget gap without making service cuts, Beardsley noted.

“The choices are few and far between. … Although the percentages sound like a lot, and over the year it will be a lot, it's still better than the alternative, which would be to lose 20 or 30 percent of our capacity,” he said.

Tom Cowan, a member of the state transportation commission, said raising fares may be the best option. He was one of two commissioners on the six-person panel to vote against the new fare schedule, however, a vote he made because he believed the ferry advisory boards should have been given time to provide input before a new fare schedule was put forward. (Under transportation commission rules, the panel votes first on whether to accept a proposal for consideration and then either approves or rejects the proposal.)

The new fare structure had not been proposed until the commission met to discuss it, he said. “The Ferry Advisory Committee on Tariffs had no opportunity to even know it was on the table.”

Cowan, a Lopez Island resident, added that the proposed fare increase is less than what it could have been. Based on revenue forecasts, he said, tickets would need to be raised 4.2 percent this October and another 4.2 percent in October 2012 to completely balance the budget.

“None of us felt we could do that,” he said, “It's too much of a hit on the ferry riders.”

Cowan was pleased, however, with the proposal that would change WSF's vehicle size categories. Under the proposal, drivers with cars less than 14 feet long would be charged 30 percent less — implemented in phases over the next three years — encouraging ferry riders to bring smaller cars on the boat.

“There aren't a lot of small cars, but if you can get two or three more small cars on, that's going to open up space for larger cars, so it opens up space for everybody,” he said.

At the same time, the proposal would change the length limit for standard vehicles from 20 feet to 22 feet, helping to solve what Cowan said has been a headache for the ferries for some time. Ticket takers, he said, have trouble differentiating between trucks and vans that are just under or just over 20 feet long. As a result, truck drivers, especially commuters, are sometimes charged different rates at different times.

“Sometimes they make mistakes an don't charge the right fare and that causes confusion and anger,” Cowan said.

Beardsley said he supported the proposal, as many commuters with trucks and vans just over 20 feet aren't able to purchase multi-use passes and end up paying significantly more than another commuters at the toll booth.

“I think it's a worthwhile modification,” he said.

And though a proposal that would eliminate the bike surcharge for frequent users may ultimately encourage riders to take to two wheels, the move was actually a logistical decision driven largely by the installation of a new bicycle gate at the Colman Dock in Seattle that allows riders to scan their passes. Surcharges will still be added to single trip tickets.

“It's primarily because ferries can save a staff person at Coleman Dock. … as I understand it, it is appealing to the bicyclists as well.”

The council will vote on the fare schedule and other proposals at the end of August, after holding eight public hearings throughout the Puget Sound area.

“Even though we voted on these different aspects, they're all recommendations at this point,” Cowan said. “We want to hear from the public in case they think differently.”

The state transportation commission will hold a public meeting to hear feedback on its recent ferry fare proposals from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 28, at McMurray Middle School. the commission expects to adopt a final fare structure on August 23.

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