Transportation commission votes against summer surcharge after holding hearing on Vashon

Transportation Commission members Bob Distler, Carol Moser and Latisha Hill and the commission
Transportation Commission members Bob Distler, Carol Moser and Latisha Hill and the commission's executive director Reema Griffith came to Vashon on Wednesday, Sept. 2.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

The state Transportation Board — after a spate of public hearings where people complained about its proposal to raise ferry fares during the height of summer — decided not to impose a new "super summer surcharge" at its meeting Tuesday.

The board voted five to two against the measure. It agreed unanimously, meanwhile, to implement a 2.5 percent across-the-board ferry fare increase, which will go into effect Oct. 11.

The commission's decision came after a meeting on Vashon last Wednesday, where several Islanders urged the panel to spike the summer surcharge to single-ride tickets.

In testimony that was sometimes emotional but also measured, those who attended last week’s meeting said the surcharge would hurt the Island’s business climate, raise the cost of living and place a hardship on those who can’t afford multi-ride tickets.

“To many, it seems like death by a thousand cuts. ... Young families cannot afford to live here,” Susan Lofland, president of Vashon’s PTSA, told the commission. “I urge you to seek efficiences ... instead of raising fares.”

“Why aren’t we putting more tolls on roads?” asked Linda Schaeffer, an Island real estate agent. “My toll is never temporary. It just keeps getting worse.”

Others urged the commission to increase the smaller across-the-board hike rather than add a new tier to the already complex fare structure, especially one that could affect the business community.

“Summer is a big time, a boom time,” Allan Kaplan said. “Evening it out over the year makes a lot more sense.”

But the three members of the seven-member transportation commission who came to Vashon for the meeting said the panel — which recommends fare structures to the state officials — opted for a summer surcharge because of previous comments Islanders have made.

“Folks were saying, ‘Charge the tourists, not the commuters.’ So we did that,” Commissioner Latisha Hill told the group.

They also said their hands were tied, since the Legislature, despite two years of study and much discussion about the state’s ailing system, has done nothing to address the underlying problem — lack of an adequate funding source.

“The vast majority of legislators are very interested in ferries, but they’re not interested in funding them,” Commissioner Bob Distler told Islanders.

Distler, who lives in the San Juans and is the only member of the commission who commutes on ferries, also noted that “moving vehicles across water on a ferry is a very expensive proposition.”

It costs the state 1/2 a cent per mile to maintain the state highway system compared to $3 a mile to maintain the ferry system, he said, citing a study.

Noting that every increase is hard on ferry-served communities, he added that this one is modest.

The commission’s proposed surcharge would have increased ticket prices for drivers, passengers and walk-ons by 10 percent in July and August. The commission has also proposed a 2.5 percent across-the-board increase that would go into effect this fall.

If approved, the new fares would mean a car-and-driver ticket would cost $15.20 during the off season, $19 during the “shoulder” season and $20.55 in July and August.

Wednesday’s meeting was one of several the commission held to garner input before it made a final decision at its Tuesday meeting.

Alan Mendel, who heads Vashon's Ferry Advisory Committee and who attended the commission's hearing, said commission members opted against the summer surcharge because it wasn't going to bring in that much money and because they hadn't realized how much of a hardship it could bring to ferry-served communities.

"I'm very pleased," he said. "They actually listened to what they heard."

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