Ferry rates are going up, and structure of fees may change

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Monday, June 13, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — The cost of a ferry ride is going up.

Again.

And soon, though it isn’t clear yet by exactly how much.

Just back in January, fares went up to help keep the nation’s largest ferry system financially afloat.

Well, in October, riders will be forking out plenty more nickels and dimes to keep it sailing along.

And that’s in addition to another 25 cents tacked onto the price of each ticket. Those quarters are going to build a new 144-car ferry. It’s a surcharge created by a law signed last week by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Fares will be rising, but the size of the increase and who would pay it is under discussion and may depend on the length of one’s car and whether you walk, pedal or drive on board.

This is all happening because Washington State Ferries must come up with an additional $310 million from fares in the next two years to keep its operating budget from sinking in red ink.

State lawmakers, who set that target, figured it would be done with a 2.5 percent increase on all fares this October and next October. But ferry officials are mulling options which would not spread it so equally.

Under one idea, walk-on passengers would face a smaller-sized hike than those driving on. There’s talk of creating a new tier of rates based on the length of a car, with lower priced tickets for those in vehicles under 14 feet in length, which covers the smallest vehicles available on the market. Bicyclists and out-of-state residents could see changes, too.

David Moseley, assistant secretary of transportation in charge of ferries, said every concept is being vetted to make sure they raise the needed money and can be carried out smoothly.

His preference? “I’m not really leaning in any direction right now,” he said.
He’ll need to soon. He is expected deliver a fare hike proposal to the state Transportation Commission on June 29. Commissioners, who are responsible for setting ferry fares, will use it to craft recommendations for the public to comment on.

Hearings on the proposed fare hikes will be held in July and August with final decision by Sept. 1. Increases would take effect a month later.

Fares went up once this year, on Jan. 1, by 2.5 percent.

Moseley said ridership didn’t tumble in response. And he thinks most riders will “understand and accept” the need for a small annual fare increase to cover inflation, as well as the 25-cent surcharge for the construction program.

But policy changes eyed for the ferry system could roil the waters, he acknowledged.

Revamping the rates for vehicles based on length is something Moseley said will likely wind up in the final proposal in some fashion. He’s hoping it will encourage people to drive smaller cars onto the boats and then more cars can be ferried on each run.

Today, on each route, there is a rate for vehicles under 20 feet in length, which covers the vast majority of passenger cars. Higher rates are charged on longer vehicles.

What’s being talked about is the creation of categories for cars under 14 feet in length, from 14 feet to 22 feet and from 22 feet to 30 feet.

Vehicles in the mid-range would be charged the same as the current fare for a vehicle under 20 feet, plus a driver fare.

Those driving shorter cars would pay up to 25 percent less. Those arriving in vehicles between 22 feet and 30 feet would pay up to 50 percent more than the regular fare. Every additional 10 feet of length of vehicle would trigger a new rate.

There are signs ferry riders like the idea. In a survey of 2,062 riders, 39 percent expressed strong support with 22 percent strongly opposed. The rest were neutral or leaned slightly one way or the other, according to the poll.

Another notable change would raise fares less for walk-on passengers than vehicles as an incentive to get people out of their cars. Over time, this could increase the capacity on each ferry, officials said.

It’s been discussed with ferry riders at last month’s transportation commission meeting.

“We’ve done a lot of work on it,” said Ray Deardorf, planning director for Washington State Ferries. “So far we’re not seeing any red flags with it though it’s not a guarantee that we’ll propose it.”

The current fees for routes can be found at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/fares/.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

Meeting
Learn more about fare hike proposals at a meeting Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. at Langley Middle School, 723 Camano Ave., Langley.

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