Consultants propose big changes to ferry fare system

A ferry fare study completed for the state last month recommended sweeping changes to Vashon’s three ferry routes.

Consultants with the Seattle-based Cedar River Group, asked by the Legislature to study the state’s current ferry fares and collection system, proposed that walk-ons and passengers ride free on Vashon routes. The draft study presented to lawmakers last month suggested that tickets instead be based on vehicle length, with drivers paying by the foot and perhaps using the Good To Go! electronic tolling system.

The proposed changes wouldn’t take place any time soon — some are recommended for as far out as 2018. However, Vashon ferry advocates say that if the state does go with the consultant’s ideas, the changes may be a hit to some Islanders.

While carpoolers and walk-ons would likely celebrate the fare shift, other commuters could face significantly higher fares, they say, and a revamped fare collection system poses a lot of unknowns.

“People on this Island are going to be shocked, and I would guess a lot of people will move,” said Greg Beardsley, head of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee.

In the South Sound, where consultants grouped Vashon’s triangle route and the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route, all trips would have the same per-foot fare cost, a change consultants said would cut back on the number of separate fare categories.

The study pointed out that about 25 percent more ferry riders use the triangle route east than west, a free ride that would be eliminated with the fare overhaul.

With a simplified fare system, consultants also recommended the state eventually remove the tollbooths for Vashon’s routes, replacing them with an electronic system that would measure vehicle lengths. Drivers would eventually pay using an account-based system or Good To Go! passes, which are currently used on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the SR 520 bridge.

The consultants recommended similarly streamlined systems at routes across the ferry system. It would cost about $3 million to implement all of the changes.

Kari Ulatoski, a Vashon ferry activist and a leader in the regionwide Ferry Community Partnership, said the draft study had some progressive ideas. However, she was skeptical whether the changes would pencil out for the cash-strapped ferry system.

Ulatoski said it’s not clear how much prices would change for Islanders, since on Vashon routes, free walk-on and passenger rides would be made up by higher fares for vehicles. Frequent rider passes would also be eliminated.

“I think they’ve got to do a lot more research. I think for our routes and Southworth, we need to see some numbers and see the economic viability,” she said.

Beardsley also had mixed feelings on the report, and said he wished there had been more public input involved in the study.

Beardsley said he had concerns about the idea of a computer selling tickets at the dock instead of a person and was worried that with a pay-by-the-foot system, the burden of high fares would fall on drivers of large vehicles.

“We have a lot of tradespeople who drive vans and trucks to work every day because they need to,” he said.

Both Ulatoski and Beardsley said that although the Legislature requested the study with the hopes of improving its fare system, lawmakers are currently focused on finding a new source of funding for the ferries. They believe any fare changes will be addressed during a later session.

“I think right now the revenue issue and boat construction issue are the priorities,” Beardsley said.

A transportation package proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, which some lawmakers said would help save the state’s transportation budget, has failed to find tractions. Ulatoski, who has visited Olympia with a few other Vashon volunteers to lobby for ferry service, said lawmakers are now scrambling to find the  funding needed to avoid deep cuts in WSF and assure new ferries can be built on schedule.

“We’re really chewing our fingernails,” she said.


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