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Islanders voice concerns over WSF’s future

Dozens of Islanders came together Monday night to discuss a range of strategies — from a reservation program to higher fares for peak-time travel — to make the state’s cash-strapped ferry system begin to pencil out.

The meeting represented one of the last opportunities for Islanders to weigh in on what could be some far-reaching changes when the Legislature convenes next January and takes up the issue of the financially ailing Washington State Ferries system.

But if Monday’s gathering was representative of Islanders’ sentiments, many aren’t happy with the choices before them.

Some said peak-time pricing — where people driving onto the ferry during prime commuting hours would pay more — would punish those who have no choice but to travel during those hours.

What’s more, some suggested, other costs would climb on the Island, since those who bring goods or services here would pass on the higher fares to Islanders.

“This would indirectly affect the price of everything on the Island,” Islander Joe Ulatoski said in one of the four discussion groups meeting organizers created.

Others expressed concern over a reservation system, saying they want more evidence that such a system would work before the state ferry system undertook the costs and hassle of implementing it.

“Why not buy a boat instead of funding reservations?” one of the small group facilitators said to applause when reporting her group’s recommendations.

But in opening comments before the 60 or so Islanders, David Moseley, the new head of the ferry system, suggested policymakers have little choice but to find creative ways to save money.

Due in large part to the state’s decision to do away with the motor vehicle excise tax, a key source of funding for Washington State Ferries, the system, he said, “is not financially sustainable. And I’m not talking about the out years. I’m talking about right now. That’s a serious problem.”

At the Legislature’s request, Moseley added, ferry officials have determined just how big the system’s financial hole is: Over the next 22 years, he said, the state would need to secure an additional $3.9 billion for capital costs and nearly $500 million in operating funds to keep the system afloat.

“That’s the level of challenge that we have,” he said.

Dick Ford, who heads the state Transportation Commission, put the issue more starkly. To put off finding a solution to the funding gap, he said, “is just planning to have a disaster.”

Over the last several years, Moseley noted, the state has addressed the ferry system’s financial mess by raising fares and cutting service.

Now, he said, ferry officials are looking for more far-reaching solutions — including ways to stave off expensive capital improvements, such as new large holding areas for cars, and ways to bring more money into the cash-strapped system.

Among the proposals they’re considering for Vashon, officials said, are:

• A reservation system where up to 90 percent of the boat would be reserved during peak sailing hours;

• Higher fares for traveling during peak hours and discounts for both passengers and those driving small cars;

• Improved bus connections; and

• Breaking up the so-called triangle route on the north end, creating dedicated service between Vashon and Fauntleroy and Southworth and Fauntleroy but no longer having some ferries travel to both Vashon and Southworth.

Each one of these proposals carries some promise, Ray Deardorf, planning director for the ferry system, told the group. But they also entail some challenges and additional upfront costs, he added.

A reservation system, for instance, would have to be phased in slowly and only after all the technology is in place to make it work smoothly, he said.

“And to do it right,” he said, “it’s likely to cost in the tens of millions.”

But a reservation system would ease congestion and enable the ferry system to operate “with the smallest possible terminal facilities,” he added.

Similarly, he noted, “pricing strategies” — such as charging more to drive a car onto the ferry during peak hours but less if the vehicle is a small car — appears to be the best way “to influence demand and shift travel” so the ferry system can make best use of its existing facilities.

Encouraging smaller cars, he said, “essentially grows the boat.”

But Islanders who gathered in small break-out groups to discuss the various proposals questioned some of the ferry system’s assumptions, while others said they needed more information.

For instance, some asked where a reservation system has worked well, particularly one serving commuters as opposed to tourists.

And while rewarding drivers of small cars might be a good thing, others questioned whether it would have much of an impact.

“I’m not so sure that that many people will run out and buy a new car ... to take advantage of lower prices,” said Doug Larsen.

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Cameras show ferry lines at north end

The state ferry system, responding to Islanders’ requests, has installed four cameras on the approach to the north-end ferry terminal, giving commuters the ability to check to see how long the ferry lines are.

Real-time photos from the cameras are available online at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/cameras/. Voice of Vashon will also display the pictures on Channel 21.

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