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Ferry system facing a wave of funding woes

BREMERTON — Since Washington State Ferries (WSF) lost the motor vehicle excise tax as a source of funding in 2000, the ferry system has been struggling to stay afloat.

WSF and the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) officials met with community members in Bremerton Wednesday night to discuss ferry funding woes.

“This ferry system as currently operating is not financially sustainable,” said David Moseley, Department of Transportation assistant secretary for the ferries division.

State officials are currently working on creating a long-term ferry funding plan to present to the state Legislature in 2009 in hopes of easing the financial troubles. Officials are traveling to the various ferry communities across the state to inform the public of the plan and hear their input on the situation.

Moseley told the small crowd gathered in Bremerton that the ferry funding gap over the next 22 years is $3.9 billion. And that’s just to keep the current ferry system afloat, it does not incorporate the amount of funding needed to make improvements to the system as ridership continues to increase.

“When I say it’s not sustainable, it’s not sustainable by a lot,” Moseley said. “We’ve got a big problem to fix here.”

WSF and WSTC officials traveled to the ferry communities in June and shared more than 90 different operating and pricing strategies that could potentially ease the financial problem. After gathering the public’s feedback, officials came up with three viable strategies.

Michael Hodgins, with Berk & Associates, presented the three possible strategies in detail. The three possibilities are creating a vehicle reservation system, making transit enhancements and changing pricing.

Hodgins said vehicles are the ferry system’s No. 1 challenge. Those using the vehicle reservation system would need to produce some form of pre-payment, arrive at the terminal 10-15 minutes before the scheduled sailing and cancel or change their reservation at least 20 minutes before the sailing.

“We’re not breaking new ground here, ferry systems worldwide do this,” Hodgins said.

He said a large percentage of sailings could be reserved ahead of time, allowing extra space on vessels for emergency vehicles and other situations. There would be a limited amount of stand-by space, so people who do not make vehicle reservations are not guaranteed a spot on the vessel.

The Port Townsend-Keystone route currently uses a vehicle reservation system and Hodgins said it seems to be working well.

He added that in order for the vehicle reservation system to work, ferry terminals would need to be improved, the “right” technology would need to be in place and the reserved routes would be added gradually.

“You really want to plan this ahead of time,” he said.

The second strategy, transit enhancements, is meant to encourage more walk-on passengers because the ferry system can more easily accommodate an increase in walk-ons as opposed to vehicles, Hodgins said.

“We heard more about transit enhances than anything else in our June meetings,” Hodgins said.

Hodgins said WSF would need to improve ferry terminals and vessels to make walk-on passengers’ and bicyclists’ sailings more pleasant.

The third strategy involves pricing. Hodgins said the pricing strategy is a way to encourage more people to walk-on or carpool, reducing the amount of vehicle congestion.

“If you change the price, people actually respond to that,” he said.

Disincentives include charging more for vehicles during peak periods and changing the frequent user discounts to incorporate peak period pricing. Incentives for ferry riders include offering off-peak vehicle discounts to encourage travel during low demand periods, offering a small vehicle incentive because larger vehicles mean larger, more costly vessels to accommodate them and offering lower fares for walk-on passengers and carpools.

“Again, we’re trying to promote walk-ons,” Hodgins said.

Hodgins said if the strategies do not work, WSF may make service changes. Possible changes for the Bremerton-Seattle route include adding more sailing times to the two vessels currently on the route or adding a third vessel if the situation is dire.

Moseley said once the community meetings end in mid-October, officials have a month to create a draft long-range finance plan which will then be presented to the public for input.

The long-term ferry funding study can be accessed online at the WSTC Web site, http://wstc.wa.gov.

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