State considers charging higher peak ferry fare during summer

The state Transportation Commission recently proposed a 2.5 percent increase in ferry fares this fall as well as a 10 percent peak summer surcharge to take effect next July and August.

The proposed surcharge — for single-purchase round trip car and driver tickets — would add a new tier to the summertime ticket price. Currently, Washington State Ferries (WSF) charges a base fare for single-ride round trip tickets from mid-October through April and a summer fare that is 25 percent higher from May until mid-October. The surcharge would create a third level of pricing, making single-ride tickets for all of July and August 35 percent higher than the base price.

In the proposed plan, a single ride ticket for a car and driver to Vashon would be $15.20 in the off-peak months. In the “shoulder seasons” of May 1 to June 23 and Sept. 8 through Oct. 9, that ticket would be $19, and in the peak time from June 24 through Labor Day, the ticket would be $20.55.

The transportation commission, which sets ferry fares, issued the proposal to address the financial shortfalls WSF has faced since the Legislature ended the so-called car tab tax in 1999, eliminating the ferries’ designated financial stream.

A public meeting about the proposal will be held Sept. 2 at McMurray Middle School.

The 2.5 percent fare increase is fair, said Alan Mendel, chair of the Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee and co-chair of the Fare Advisory Executive Council. Legislation in 2007 froze ferry fares until October of this year, and costs have gone up since then.

But Mendel and other ferry advocates are crying foul about the peak summer surchage.

While the aim of the surcharge is to collect revenue from summer tourists, Mendel said, the people who will be most affected are those Islanders who cannot buy the discounted 10-ride cards.

“There are a significant number of people on this Island who cannot afford to buy them,” he said.

Vickie Mercer, a member of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, said she believes the proposed fares would also discourage travelers from coming to Vashon.

“The incidental traveler will be obsolete,” she predicted.

Ferry ridership peaked in 1999, she noted, before fares started to rise; ridership has steadily decreased since. She’s also worried about the surcharge’s impacts on others who take the ferries occasionally — not just Islanders and tourists, but those who come here as part of their jobs, including county inspectors and businesses that deliver products.

This proposed increase also disturbs Melinda Sontgerath, owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant and former president of the Island’s chamber of commerce.

“Any percent increase is a deterrent,” she said. “I think it will have a big negative impact on our businesses.”

The cost of buying goods on Vashon — already high — will only go up because those businesses that deliver goods will pass ferry costs on to Island businesses, she said. And some businesses will likely stop delivering to the Island altogether, she said, something that has already happened to her, forcing her to eliminate some items.

Though the proposed peak price would not be much higher for a car and driver than during the shoulder season, Sontgerath noted that most people who visit the Island bring their family or friends, adding sometimes considerably to the cost of the crossing.

The potential negative impacts of the surcharge outweigh its benefits, Mendel added. The surcharge will bring in $1.1 million next summer, he said, a fraction of the shortfall WSF is facing.

But that shortfall is exactly what is behind the proposal, according to Reema Griffith, the executive director of the transportation commission. And the projected revenue from the surcharge is significant.

“Just over a million dollars is not a ton, but you don’t want to just ignore it, when every dollar counts,” she said.

She also believes any negative impact will be minimal.

The commission’s research has found that in the summer ridership by occasional ferry travelers jumps 221 percent. By imposing an increase on those travelers, the ferry service can add some revenue to its coffers while not affecting its regular riders, she said.

The commission’s research also showed that a fare increase of the size it has proposed would not deter most ferry travelers from taking their trips. As a result, the commission expects revenue to go up with no drop in ridership.

“We’re trying to use the data to drive the decision-making,” Griffith said. “The majority of people who will be hit are people on vacation.”

The commission hopes to impact regular riders as little as possible, she added, recommending only the 2.5 percent across-the-board increase. But that increase would bring in only $6 million for the biennium, which ends in September 2011. And that amount is not sufficient.

“Unless a whole lot of new riders appear..., we are likely to face about an $8 million revenue shortfall if fare increases are kept at 2.5 percent,” she said.

The commission wants to hear from people, Griffith said, and is open to modifying its proposal because of public comment. If the new fare structure is put in place, the commission will monitor ridership next summer to determine its effectiveness and may alter it accordingly.

Ferry advocate Mendel, however, says what the ferries are being asked to do financially is unrealistic. Most transit is expected to cover 20 to 25 percent of its operating costs from its fare, while ferries are at 70 percent and being asked to get to 80 percent.

“The simple answer is the legislature should give (WSF) more money,” he said. “But that is another story.”

Public Comment

The transportation committee will hold a meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2, at McMurray Middle School.

Those who cannot attend the meeting may send comments to the commission via letter, e-mail or telephone by 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4:

P.O. Box 47308

Olympia, WA 98504-7308

(360) 705-7070

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