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Ferry fare hikes, new fare structure planned

Within the next year ferry riders can expect to pay at least 5 percent more at the tollbooth.

That’s a bigger hike than what  lawmakers anticipated in the spring, which reflects  lower than anticipated ridership and revenue.

A lonely audience of three attended a Tuesday ferry outreach meeting at the Bainbridge Commons where representatives from the Washington  State Transportation Commission (WSTC) met to discuss the new fare proposals. The new measures would be implemented in phases, beginning first in October.

WSF officials say the fare increases are the “first step towards meeting an overall revenue target of $310 million that must be raised by ferry fares between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2013, as required by the current Washington state transportation budget.”

The commission avoided making ferry service cuts by supplementing the budget with revenue proposals.

The 2.5 percent general fare increases in October of 2011 followed by another 2.5 percent increase in October, 2012 were  passed be the legislature during the last session. The WSTC now proposes bumping up the 2012 increase from October to May to take advantage of the tourism season and cover projected budget shortfalls.

System-wide riders will also have to pay a capital surcharge of .25 cents to be dedicated to fund a new 144-car ferry, which was mandated by the Legislature. The fee will be attached on every one-way and round-trip fare sold, including the multi-ride and monthly passes.

In addition, the proposal includes a fuel surcharge  to cover costs when gas spikes past budget fuel projections. A surcharge would be implemented once the actual cost of fuel exceeds the cost of the fare by more than 2.5 percent. The current budgeted fuel price is $3.86 per gallon, so fuel prices would need to reach $4.08 before the 2.5 percent, or $.20 surcharge, would be implemented. As gas prices continue to rise above the fuel budget the surcharge would rise, but would be capped at 10 percent of the applicable fare.

Ray Deardorf from WSF said that if fuel costs remain below budget then the money saved can be used as a credit to fund reserves, which can be tapped before applying the surcharge.

A new vehicle category based on size was also created to encourage drivers to use smaller vehicles. Cars less than 14 feet long will pay 90 percent of the standard vehicle fare starting on Oct. 1, followed by 80 percent in May of 2012 and 70 percent in 2013. The standard vehicle size would also be increased from its current maximum length of 20 feet to 22 feet, which would eliminate some vehicles from paying the oversized fee. Standard vehicles on the central sound routes (Kingston, Bainbridge and Bremerton) would pay an extra nickel through May 2012 to offset the small vehicle lost revenue.

Vehicles under 14 feet include vehicles such as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris hatchback and MINI Cooper.

Bicycle commuters get a small respite as the annual permit would be eliminated and passengers with multi-ride cards, monthly passes or ORCA ePurses won’t have to pay the additional $1 to ride onto the ferry.

Torin Larsen, Bainbridge representative for the Ferry Community Partnership, said he participated in the ferry tariff meetings and was pleased with the process, but remains concerned for the future of the ferry system and the communities it serves.

“When do the fares get so high that they prevent a commuter from moving to Bainbridge?” Larsen asked at Tuesday’s meeting. “At some point raising the fares reaches a point of diminishing returns. At what point will you not raise the fares any more?”

Larsen said he worries that the fares are reaching the point where excessive ferry costs will prevent future residents from moving to this side of the sound, and it will force others to pick-up and leave.

“Ferry costs are always what is focused on, instead of the benefits of ferry service,” said Larsen.

Overly expensive ferry fares will hurt the state in terms of lost sales tax revenue, Larsen said, and it threatens the vitality of business, especially in places like Vashon Island where the ferries are critical.

Dennis Cziske, a Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee member who attended the meeting, said the fares are excessive. He estimated that by next summer it will cost a family of four over $50 to get on a boat and come home.

“The state constitution says that ferries are a party of state highways and should be accessible like any other state highway,” said Cziske. “We are getting to the point that [fares] are punitive.”

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