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As fuel prices rise, so may ferry fares

KINGSTON — Ferry riders may help Washington State Ferries foot its fuel bill beginning this spring.

The Legislature will review a surcharge that would automatically adjust ferry fares based on the price of diesel fuel. If approved, the rule could take effect as early as May 1, though the Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee is challenging whether public process was followed properly in planning the surcharge.

The surcharge would help cover a projected $32 million shortfall in Ferries’ fuel budget over the next two years.

In 2009 the Legislature based its two-year transportation budget on a projected fuel price of $1.30 per gallon in 2010 and $1.66 in 2011. That projection was low, even compared to 2009 prices.

Between July 2008 and June 2009, ferries consumed 17 million gallons of diesel at an average cost of $2.50 per gallon, Ferries Planning Director Ray Deardorf said.

To soften the blow of the low projection, Gov. Chris Gregoire instructed the Transportation Commission to develop a fuel surcharge in her proposed supplemental budget.

The commission’s surcharge plan will debut before the Senate Transportation Committee Monday. The proposal won’t be a surprise to legislators, who included a fuel surcharge among funding options to study following their 2009 session.

In the proposal, a baseline price for fuel would be set. If the actual price exceeded that baseline, fares would automatically be adjusted each month using a set formula. Fare increases would be capped at 20 percent, equivalent to $2.35 for a vehicle on the Bainbridge ferry.

Meanwhile, ferries would use price-hedging strategies and modify boats to run more economically.

Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who sits on the Joint Transportation Committee, hopes the Legislature will find a better way of covering the fuel budget deficit. She said the surcharge would put an undue burden on ferry riders, considering the entire Department of Transportation will be affected by the defecit.

If a surcharge is used, it should at least be a fixed amount instead of the fluctuating model proposed, Rolfes said.

“It seems like an administrative headache and it’s so unpredictable for riders,” Rolfes said. “People need a number they can budget for.”

Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee member Walt Elliott said his group believes there should have been public meetings on the surcharge as it was being developed.

“That’s our concern, that there hasn’t been transparency yet,” Elliott said.

The Kingston committee sent a letter to Assistant Attorney General for Government Accountability Timothy Ford, asking his office to review the public process used to develop the surcharge.

By law, Washington State Ferries must hold public meetings on new “pricing policies.” Deardorf said his agency has only developed fuel conservation strategies to go along with the surcharge plan, which don’t represent new pricing policies.

Transportation Commission Executive Director Reema Griffith said the commission will hold at least one, but likely several public meetings on the surcharge this spring if the Legislature instructs the commission to move forward with the plan.

Elliott said those hearings would come too late, after the language of the rule change had already been set in the Legislature.

Have an opinion?

Contact your representatives:

Rep. Sherry Appleton: appleton.sherry@leg.wa.gov

Rep. Christine Rolfes: rolfes.christine@leg.wa.gov

Sen. Phil Rockefeller: rockefeller.phil@leg.wa.gov

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