Transportation officials want a new perspective

OLYMPIA — State officials are looking for ferry riders who have a way with numbers.

A new ferry fare advisory group is forming this fall to represent riders during the price-setting process and perhaps thumb through Washington State Ferries' finances.

The Transportation Commission, charged with setting fares for Washington State Ferries, has been discussing the creation of the group with legislators from the Joint Transportation Committee along with Ferry Advisory Committee members but it’s still unclear what form a new committee will take.

“We hope this tariff policy committee will have some level of technical expertise, and not just be representing a certain route,” Transportation Commission Executive Director Reema Griffith said.

Legislators expect a draft proposal for the committee in the next few weeks and the commission plans to formalize the new body in November.

The Transportation Commission originally created a Tariff Policy Committee in the early 1990s but disbanded the group in 2007 as the Legislature launched a study into ferry finances and ridership. Then lawmakers froze ferry fares from 2007 until this September.

Now, with finances studied and fares again on the rise, the commission is ready to reinstall an advisory group. Griffith said commissioners want to build a group that would both represent riders and have the expertise to help sort through WSF’s complex fare system.

The potential influence of rider input was illustrated during a contentious fare-setting cycle this year.

On Sept. 8 the transportation passed a package of fare changes that included a general 2.5 percent fare increase. But it abandoned a proposed 10 percent “summer surcharge,” after the measure was slammed by ferry riders at a series of public meetings. Speakers told the commission the surcharge would be a blow to seniors, low-income riders and commercial users.

Some of the commissioners who voted against the surcharge said they hadn’t understood the impact the measure would have on riders until they heard it from speakers at the public meetings.

State Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who has been involved in discussions about the new advisory group, said a tariff committee could have voiced riders’ perspective much earlier in the process.

“You would have had much more public input,” Rolfes said. “The (summer surcharge) proposal may not have come forward or it may have come forward in a very different form.”

This year, WSF and the Transportation Commission had just five months — from the end of the legislative session in April until the end of August — to propose and approve fare changes.

Ferry Advisory Committees, legislators and the commissioners each have ideas as to how the committee can serve the public.

The Executive Committee of Ferry Advisory Committees submitted a proposal to the commission to create a 10-member committee under the governor’s office, with representatives from the seven FACs and three appointed members. The committee would work directly with WSF to create a fare proposal to bring to the commission for approval.

In a 2009 house bill, Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, drafted his own vision for a nine-member fare advisory committee. The bill stalled but Seaquist said he will likely submit it again in the next session with a few amendments.

Seaquist, Rolfes and others have pointed to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee as an example of an effective advisory group.

The Tacoma Narrows CAC is tasked by state law to both study the costs of operating and maintaining the bridge, and recommending tolls to the Transportation Commission.

A major question is whether the committee will be established under the commission or written into a state statute. Griffith said some commissioners would prefer the group be formed as a subcommittee so it could be changed as needed without legislative action.

Whatever form the committee takes, it will be influenced by the successes and failures of the original Tariff Policy Committee.

When the committee was first convened, its principle task was to simplify a muddled fare setting system, recalls Ed Sutton, a San Juan Islands Ferry Advisory Committee member who served on the first TPC.

The committee helped institute a fare system based on vehicle size and the distance traveled on a route, a policy dubbed “Tariff Route Equity.”

But when Initiative 695 dashed 20 percent of WSF’s operating revenue, the committee’s role shifted to raising money.

“All of the sudden we go from trying to make an equitable fare structure to sticking our finger in the dike,” Sutton said. “Because the tough decisions weren’t being made in Olympia on funding, the pressure was on to do it through fares.”

Over the next six years the committee slogged through a procession of steep fare hikes.

At the final meeting before the committee was disbanded, “the feeling was enough was enough,” said Dennis Cziske, a Hansville resident who was appointed to the tariff committee in its last year.

Sutton and Cziske both said the committee was too large to be effective. It’s membership sometimes numbered more than 20. Cziske said he felt the committee was too much “under the thumb” of the commission, in part because the commission selected its chair.

This year Cziske has contributed to the Ferry Advisory Committees’ proposal for the new fare committee. He said he’s excited by the potential to re-engage riders.

“I’m eager to see it come and I’m eager to participate,” Cziske said. “I believe the new committee will make a very valuable contribution to fare setting in the future.”

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