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Ferry system wants to know public's opinion of 12.5 percent fare increase

A general 12.5 percent ferry fare increase proposal will be the subject of several public meetings to be held across the Puget Sound and Kitsap County during February and March.

The Washington State Transportation Commission on Jan. 9 opted to submit the proposal, crafted by the Tariff Policy Committee, to a public outreach process.

The proposed ferry fare increase could generate an additional $7.6 million and bolster fare-box recovery levels to nearly 60 percent of operating costs, according to Washington State Ferries (WSF) officials.

“This proposed (increase) is not a fait accompli,” said Transportation Commission Chairman Chris Marr. “There will be a series of public meetings on the proposed fare structure in different ferry communities from mid-February to mid-March.”

Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Pat Patterson said that the Tariff Policy Committee could modify its proposal based on public input during those meetings before resubmitting the plan to the commission again in April.

At the Transportation Commission’s April meeting, a formal public hearing will be held on the proposed fare increases. A decision could be rendered within a week, meaning a fare increase could go into effect by May for West Sound commuters.

The meetings have not yet been formally scheduled.

After fares increased by an average of 20 percent on the Central Sound routes last June, the marine division of the state Department of Transportation took a 3.7 percent hit in ridership levels systemwide.

But even with the dip in ridership, WSF collected an additional $7.6 million in actual revenues.

“The increased fares did not have as drastic an impact as we thought,” said Marr. “At the time, we were pushing into unchartered territory.”

Overall, Marr says the process of phasing in fare increases over a six-year period — a plan recommended by a legislative task force — has been, and could still be, a plus on several fronts.

Doing so relays a positive message to the Legislature as a whole, not just to Kitsap lawmakers and others whose constituencies rely on ferries.

“The public has sent a message that they want the users of these systems to pay more for the operating costs,” Marr said. “You see the direction of transportation is heading toward a user-pay system.”

Now that users are taking on more operating costs, Marr said, the Legislature as a whole could be more inclined to offer a permanent longer-term solution to funding.

Marr said it’s like saying “‘We’ve felt our pain, but we can only get to this point and now we need you to show the same act of faith.”

Meanwhile, state officials indicated late last year WSF could be facing a $10 million shortfall in projected revenues over the current biennium.

Now ferry officials say an anticipated drop in fuel prices over the remainder of the biennium could lower operating costs and thus render the shortfall mute. Even so, legislators still have to fix in this session a $30 million gap in the WSF budget that wasn’t addressed during the last session.

With the elimination of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in 2000, a 20 percent hole was punched into the WSF operating fund and the marine division took a 75 percent hit to its capital fund. The following year, the Joint Legislative Task Force on Ferries recommended that fares be increased over a six-year period to ultimately cover 80 percent of the ferry system’s operating costs.

The current fare increase proposal that’s up for discussion in the next few months is the second step in a long process crafted to honor the task force’s guidelines and to further buoy the ferry system’s operating budget.

In general, the proposal calls for a 12.5 percent increase in ferry fares that would lift the current one-way, car-and-driver rate from $8 to $9 on the Central Sound routes of Bremerton, Bainbridge Island and Kingston.

Peak season, one way rates on the Central Sound routes for car and driver would increase from $10 to $11.25.

Roundtrip passenger fares on those Central Sound routes would increase from $4.50 to $5.10. Peak season roundtrip rates for passengers would also increase from $4.50 to $5.10 on the Central Sound routes.

Roundtrip tickets for the faster foot ferries that travel between Bremerton and Seattle would increase from $6.50 to $7.10 under the proposal during regular and peak seasons.

In most cases, tickets for the Southworth-to-Fauntleroy route won’t see any increase at all. There is one exception. Discount books for passengers would increase from $28 to $30.

The plan also reduces the discounts to buyers of a 10-trip commuter booklet. The cost of those booklets for passengers on general runs would increase from $31.50 to $38.25 and from $51.50 to $58.25 on the foot ferries. The cost of commuter booklets for car and drivers on the auto ferries would increase from $128 to $144.

On the flip side, monthly passes that are available to passengers would actually go down from the current $66.20 a month to $61.20 a month.

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