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Could ferry riders lose frequent-user discounts?

Ferry-service advocates throughout the region have sounded an alarm over the past several days, raising concern that Washington State Ferries could eventually drop its frequent-user discounts that save commuters up to 45 percent in ferry fares in the summer months.

The issue is coming to a head in the state Legislature, where a legislative skirmish, they say, suggests state officials and key lawmakers are poised to try to end the discounts as a way to shore up the financially struggling ferry system.

“It’s a real threat,” said Alan Mendel, who chairs Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee. “It’s not an immediate threat. But it’s a huge concern.”

At issue is language in state law that for years encouraged the state Transportation Commission, which sets ferry fares, to take into account frequency of use when establishing the rates. That language was taken out of the statute last year, when the Legislature passed a major bill freezing fares and calling on the ferry system to undertake a number of studies to determine how to right itself financially.

According to ferry advocates, they were told at the time that the language’s removal was an accident and that it could easily be reinserted during this session. Now, however, they say they’re hearing another story.

State Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), who chairs the state Transportation Committee, said she would not hold a hearing on legislation drafted by Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Bainbridge) requiring the state to consider frequency of use in its fare-setting policies, according to ferry-service advocates. Appleton, as a result, rewrote her bill, HB 2718, saying the state “may” instead of “shall” consider frequent use in fare-setting, according to Vickie Mercer, a Vashon ferry-service advocate.

Clibborn agreed to hold a hearing for the new version of the bill, slated for Tuesday afternoon (yesterday), too late to make The Beachcomber’s deadline.

Mercer, like other citizen-activists who work on ferry issues in the region, expressed anger and frustration over the reworking of Appleton’s bill.

The new version, she said, “is gutless. It’s an optional thing that doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t give us adequate protection against surcharges.”

State Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) said she, too, is concerned by the threat to ferry users’ discounts.

“We’re not tourists. We need that discount,” she said.

Mercer said the discounts, which provide reductions of around 20 percent in the winter and 45 percent in the summer when higher rates take effect, are heavily used on Vashon. According to state ferry statistics, more than 70 percent of the Island’s ferry riders took advantage of frequent-user discounts in 2006.

The legislation comes at a critical time for the ferry system, which has an aging fleet, a shortage of boats, rising operational costs and unmet capital needs. Because of its financial difficulties, the Legislature last year told the ferry system to develop a number of “operational strategies” to reduce its costs or increase its revenue.

As a result, some in the transportation field, including Bob Distler, an outspoken member of the state Transportation Commission, have begun calling for “congestion pricing,” where, instead of getting discounts, commuters and others who use the ferries during peak hours pay more.

Distler said the ferry system’s failure to use such a system is out of step with commonly used pricing strategies.

“We have things backwards,” he said. “It’s as if the Broadway theater charges less on Friday and Saturday night and more for its Wednesday matinee.”

The state ferry system, in a “situation assessment” published in December, just before the start of the legislative session, echoed Distler’s philosophy, noting that ferry users who traveled most frequently “are in fact paying the lowest possible price for their trip.”

But ferry advocates say the approach of charging frequent users higher fares wrongly taxes those who need ferry service to get to work.

With the K2’s departure and the loss of other businesses on the Island, Mercer said, a growing number of Islanders are commuting — almost all out of necessity.

“For Vashon,” said Mercer, “this would be devastating.”

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