Editorial: Ferry woes — A commission listened. Will lawmakers?

Not many Islanders turned out for a meeting with the state Transportation Commission when it came to the Island to discuss proposed changes to the ferry fare structure earlier this month. But those who did spoke clearly, civilly and passionately.

In no uncertain terms, they asked the board to reconsider its proposal to add a new summer surcharge to the cost of single-trip ferry tickets — a charge that would have raised the price for a car-and-driver ticket in July and August to $20.55.

The commissioners expressed surprise at our objections. One noted that they opted to take this approach to shore up the financially ailing ferry system because it would affect tourists more than residents. Isn’t that what we want, she asked?

But Vashon residents, as well as those in other ferry-served communities, noted that the impact would not only hit tourists; it would also be felt by those least able to pay — residents who can’t afford to shell out the high cost of a multiple-trip ferry pass.

Amazingly, the commissioners concurred.

Last week, they voted 5 to 2 not to impose the super summer surcharge. As Alan Mendel, one of the Island’s ferry-service advocates, noted, the commissioners listened to what they heard in meetings held throughout the region.

The fact that the commissioners changed their minds is deeply gratifying. But make no mistake: It will be little more than a Pyrrhic victory if lawmakers don’t resolve the much bigger and harder issue before them — the fact that the ferry system has no dedicated stream of revenue.

And while some love to hate Bob Distler, the one commissioner who actually uses ferries on a regular basis and who seems to have little sympathy for our ferry woes, he — more than the other commissioners at the Vashon meeting — spoke clearly and forcefully about the Legislature’s failure to address that fundamental issue.

He also made another fact clear: Ferries are an expensive way to move cars around.

So while it’s good news that the latest injury won’t be inflicted upon us, it’s a holding action, at best. Two things need to happen before we can breathe a sigh of relief: The state needs to figure out a way to trim its escalating ferry bill by grappling with the system’s high labor costs, and lawmakers need to dedicate some portion of some tax to the system, so that riders aren’t bearing such a huge burden.

Advocates on Vashon and elsewhere are working hard to get the state to make these structural changes. Islanders of every stripe — commuters, occasional users, the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy — need to help them. We need to continue to press for reform.

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