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Ferry system’s ongoing problems puts stress on Vashon’s runs

By LESLIE BROWN

Staff Writer

First there was the unexpected two-boat schedule, which plagued commuters in January.

Then there was news earlier this month that ferry commuters could lose their frequent-user discounts.

And this past weekend, in what some say is a first for the Island, Vashon’s Tahlequah route lost all service for more than 24 hours, forcing several Islanders who encountered a locked gate across the Tahlequah dock to turn around and head to the northend ferry to get off of the Island.

These are tough times for ferry users, which on Vashon means nearly everyone.

“We have no options. Either we’re riding a boat, or we’re not going anywhere,” said Jim Westcott, who was heading with his daughter to Crystal Mountain to ski Sunday when they had to turn around and take a northend ferry, costing them about two hours in their commute time.

“You have to kind of go with the zen of it, or it’d drive you nuts,” he added. “But it sure would be nice if they got it together more.”

Indeed, many — from the Island’s Ferry Advisory Committee to commuters answering a recent survey — are asking the Washington State Ferries (WSF) to get it together more.

Last week, 20 people from Vashon headed to the Legislature to testify on a bill that would encourage the state Transportation Commission — the body that sets fares for the ferry system — to consider frequency of use when establishing fares. Seven — from Joe Ulatoski to Father Tryphon — testified, according to Alan Mendel, who heads the Island’s Ferry Advisory Committee.

“They all had the same message,” he said. “Don’t mess with our ferry fares.”

The bill passed the House unanimously and is now headed to the Senate, Mendel said. But with language that simply recommends the Transportation Commission to consider frequency of use, he added, “It’s a very innocuous bill.”

Washington State Ferries’ financial troubles began eight years ago, when the state Legislature — following the lead of a state initiative that was declared unconstitutional — axed the motor vehicle excise tax, a levy that provided the ferry system with 22 percent of its operating revenue. At the same time, fuel prices have soared, from $20 million to $80 million per biennium over the past eight years.

Escalating costs and lack of revenue have taken a toll: Last year, WSF faced a budget shortfall of nearly $30 million.

Now, to make matters worse, WSF is confronting an aging fleet, damaged boats in need of emergency repairs and, as a result, a system with no give in it. The upshot, said Mendel, is that the situation that occurred this weekend — when the Evergreen State, a stand-in for the Rhododendron, broke down, and there were no other boats to call into service — will likely be repeated in the months ahead.

“There are no spares,” he said. “When something happens, there’s no service. Every boat is being used right now.”

The systemwide issues, however, are also bringing lawmakers from the ferry-served communities into a stronger alliance, said Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island). So far this year, she said, lawmakers are working more closely than ever, banding together in an effort to get the collective voices of the state’s ferry-served communities heard.

“With the fleet in the condition it is, every boat has an impact on every ferry-served community,” she said.

Bremer-ton’s been plagued with problems because of the break-down of the Hyak and the Yakima, she noted; and Port Townsend lost service in November when the state’s three steel-hulled boats, which served the community, had to be abruptly pulled out of the water after corrosion was found on their hulls.

“With all of these problems, we’re literally working together,” she said.

Many more Islanders may soon have an opportunity to join the chorus.

Last year, in light of WSF’s severe budget shortfalls, the Legislature ordered the eight-member Transportation Commission to undertake what’s now being called the “ferry financing study” — an effort to find long-term financing alternatives to the ailing ferry system.

As part of that effort, the Transportation Commission has hired a public opinion firm to try to determine what kind of pricing and policy strategies, if any, could make the system work better, said Reema Griffith, the commission’s executive director. Two months ago, the firm held nine focus groups representing each of its routes, asking ferry riders whether they would use the ferries during different hours, if they would be open to more carpooling or mass transit, if they’d support a reservation system and other matters.

The firm is now about to issue a lengthy survey to commuters on all of the routes to further probe ferry user attitudes. A test survey was released last week to determine how many questions commuters can answer in the course of a ferry ride. All told, the commission hopes to get 13,000 or more surveys completed.

“We’re at a crisis point right now with the ferry system,” Griffith said. “One of the key pieces in this is what does the user or customer want and how can they help.”

The surveys will be a critical piece in the process, she said.

“This is the first time we’ve attempted to get a statistically valid snapshot of what people are thinking,” Griffith said. “We hear from the ones who are active. This is an opportunity for people who don’t have time to get involved in politics to share their views on how we can move the system forward.”

But if the focus groups are any indication, one of the leading strategies some members of the Transportation Commission are advocating — congestion pricing, or using higher fares during peak hours to get people to take ferries during off-peak times — likely won’t work.

According to a presentation to the Transportation Commission last month, the public opinion firm found that most participants in the nine focus groups who regularly use the ferry “have fixed and difficult schedules” and that “when they can travel is ‘driven’ by work schedules and other constraints.” The firm also found by way of its focus groups that people who can adjust their schedules already have and that their trips are well-planned and carefully scheduled.

“People feel they’ve already adjusted their lives immensely to get around peak-period travel, and there wasn’t much more they could do to flex,” Griffith said.

Even so, she added, the Transportation Commission has to try to find a way to use its half-empty boats more effectively.

“If you could travel at 10 instead of 8 or 7, would you do so if you got a break in the fare?” she said. “We have to see if it’s a possibility or not.”

Ferry-service activists, however, say they’re dubious about the public opinion research and whether it will really have an impact on the Transportation Commission’s direction.

“I think they’re not going to listen to the survey,” said Greg Beardsley, a member of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee. “One or two of the Transportation Commissioners have been pushing congestion pricing for a year or two now. I think they’re fixated on it.”

What’s more, he said, on a route like Vashon’s, congestion pricing makes little sense, since people are going off-Island all day long.

“Based on the traffic statistics I’ve seen, our traffic load is almost all day long,” he said. “There are no empty boats in the middle of the day.”

Focus groups

The results of nine focus group discussions conducted by a public firm hired by the state Transportation Commission can be found on the commission’s Web site at www.wstc.wa.gov/FerryCustomerSurvey/default.htm.

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