Ferry fares could be taking another hike

Another 12.5 percent hike in ferry fares is in the works for May, to raise an additional $7 million per year and bring farebox recovery to two-thirds of the system’s operating costs.

But for the North Kitsap’s army of daily commuters, the fares could actually decline. Monthly passes will cost $61.20, down from the present $66.20.

“We’re subtly giving residents a bonus, but you have to know how to use the system,” said Alice Tawresey of Bainbridge Island, chair of the Tariff Policy Committee that made the recommendations.

The general recommendation is for a 12.5 percent fare increase, which would raise the one-way car-and-driver fare from $8 to $9 on the “Central Sound” routes – Bainbridge, Bremerton and Kingston.

Passenger fares on the Central Sound auto-carrying boats – collected only on the westbound runs – would go from $4.50 to $5.10, and fares on the faster passenger-only boats between Seattle and Bremerton would go from $6.50 to $7.10.

During the peak summer season, auto-driver fares would increase from the present $10 to $11.25.

The plan reduces the discounts to purchasers of a 10-trip coupon book. The cost of those books for passengers would increase from $31.50 to $41 on the general runs, and from $51.50 to $55.75 on the foot ferries. Car-and-driver books would go from $128 to $144.

The coupon-book discount was reduced because of debate over whether someone who rides the ferries 10 times over a three-month period – the duration of the coupons – really qualifies as a frequent user.

“State law calls for a discount for ‘reasonable commutations,’ and we didn’t think that someone who takes 10 trips in 90 days qualifies as a commuter,” Tawresey said.

Some committee members wanted to drop the ticket-book discount altogether, but also eliminate the 90-day time limit.

Under the new system, a monthly pass-holder would pay less than a ticket-book holder after 15 trips a month. And at 20 trips per month, a monthly pass-holder would actually pay less than a current ticket-book holder pays.

The ferry system prefers monthly passes over the 10-trip books, Tawresey said, because pass-holders can be processed faster during busy loading periods.

Few riders buy the monthly passes now, she said, because there is little cost advantage, and because they are only available over the Internet.

“That will change,” Tawresey said. “The passes will be available at the toll booths.”

The State Transportation Commission will consider and possibly modify the recommendation in January. It will then give the committee authority to conduct public meetings. The commission will consider adopting the plan in April, with the new fares to go into effect in May.

The increase, which comes on top of a 20 percent increase that took effect last June, is part of an effort to plug the revenue gap left by the repeal of the value-based Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. The MVET, which provided some 20 percent of the WSF’s operating revenue and 70 percent of its capital revenue, was repealed first by voter passage of Initiative 695, then by legislative repeal of the tax.

The state legislature has said that WSF should recover 80 percent of its operating costs from the farebox – up from less than 60 percent prior to last year’s fare increase.

Rep. Beverly Woods, (R-Poulsbo), said Thursday that she still wants to revisit the categorization of system costs.

“The Eagle Harbor Maintenance Terminal is categorized as an operational expense,” she said, “but maybe it should be classed as capital.”

Woods said she believes that if items are categorized properly, the present fare structure already produces close to 80 percent of operational revenue.

She did not say where the money would come from to pay for the expenses she believes should be re-categorized.

According to Tawresey, though, ferry system users cannot count on the Legislature to increase funding, especially in light of declining state revenues.

“There aren’t more than nine legislators who care anything about the ferry system,” she said. “The rest want all the transportation money to go into highway projects.

“In order to save the ferry system as we know it today, the passengers have to come up with a bigger share of the revenue. Otherwise, there are going to be major cuts, possibly with some whole routes being eliminated.”

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