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Ferry fare increases, as well as some discounts, are given a green light

Despite opposition by legislators from communities served by ferries, the Washington State Transportation Commission recently approved ferry fare increases that add up to more than 5 percent in the coming year — twice the increase that was anticipated in the spring.

The commission also approved a fuel surcharge and a new small-vehicle fare category that the 10  lawmakers — including two who represent Vashon — expressed concerns about in an Aug. 23 letter to the commissioners.

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 and help keep the financially struggling ferry system afloat. However, more recent ferry projections predicted lower than expected ridership, prompting Washington State Ferries (WSF) to seek slightly higher and sooner fare hikes.

Last Wednesday the commission approved an additional 3 percent increase to be implemented in May.

“It was difficult, but we felt it was the responsible thing to do,” said transportation commissioner Tom Cowan of Lopez Island. “We felt if we didn’t do it, we would be in the hole even further.”

But state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien) said he and the other lawmakers who expressed concern felt the forecasts the commissioners relied upon were too pessimistic. He said they should have given the legislature more time to find permanent funding for the ferry system before raising fares so rapidly.

“Too much of the burden of the fare increase will fall on riders,” Fitzgibbon said. “Fare increases should be phased out more.”

Cowan said the legislators’ worries about fare increases, as well as the fuel surcharge and small-vehicle category, were notable but simply came too late in the process. The lawmakers’ letter was sent one day before the commission voted on the package of fare changes.

“I would have taken it more seriously personally — though I can’t speak for the other commissioners — if we had gotten this letter relatively soon after we made the decision in late June or early July that this was the proposal,” he said.

What’s more, Cowan said, consideration of the commissioners’ requests and proposed alternatives would have required additional research that there simply wasn’t time for.

“To send this letter the day before and expect without any research and analysis we would just agree with it was not very realistic,” he said.

Though fares will increase overall, drivers of vehicles under 14 feet will ultimately pay 30 percent less, a discount that will be implemented in phases over the next three years. The vehicle category restructuring also extends the length limit for standard vehicles from 20 feet to 22 feet. The standard vehicles will pay, over time, about 5 cents more to offset the small car discount.

Fitzgibbon said lawmakers were concerned about the new small vehicle category because families with different sized vehicles may no longer be able to use one multi-ride pass for multiple cars.

“If there are differential fares for different size cars, we could have situations where families have to have multiple frequent-ride passes, and some of those rides go to waste,” he said.

Cowan said he shared the concern, but believed the new category was necessary in order to move toward a system where riders pay by the foot. 

“I and everyone I talked to agree the fairest way to charge is by the foot,” Cowan said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Lawmakers also expressed concern that the fuel surcharge — which will kick in if fuel prices exceed $4.08 per gallon — could fluctuate as high as 10 percent. They recommended a maximum surcharge of 5 percent.

“I think we were hoping (the fuel surcharge) would be smaller and not as variable,” Fitzgibbon said. “What I hear from most ferry riders is that they would prefer to have higher fares that are more consistent and don’t fluctuate with the price of fuel.”

In addition to approving the new fare structure and fuel surcharge, the commission voted to eliminate the bicycle surcharge for those with frequent rider passes and adopted a 25-cent surcharge on all tickets to raise funds for new boats, which was recommended by lawmakers.

The commission held eight public hearings in July and August to gain feedback on the fare proposals. A small handful of Islanders attended the July 28 meeting on Vashon, and Cowan said the other hearings were sparsely attended as well, which the commission believed was a good sign.

“We took it to mean it must not be too out there or too radical of a proposal, or more people would have come out,” Cowan said.

Fitzgibbon, who was unsure why the legislators’ letter was sent the day before the commission’s vote, said that although he wasn’t pleased with some of the changes that were adopted, he hoped he and other lawmakers could find a permanent source of funding for the ferry system in the next year.

“We have a chance this coming legislative session to work more on finding stable revenue for the ferry system so we don’t have the rapidly escalating fares,” he said. 

Cowan agreed. “These are tough times to put that much of a fare increase. … I look forward to something that can be put to voters as a statewide transportation package next year,” he said.

 

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