Commuter fares here to stay?

Last year, commuters lauded a new law that froze ferry fare hikes until late 2009.

Overshadowed in the celebration was the removal of language in the law that ensures price breaks for frequent ferry riders.

A new bill, introduced this month by Poulsbo Rep. Sherry Appleton and set for a public hearing next week, aims to put that language back in.

“It’s about integrity and keeping the faith with commuters,” Appleton said of House Bill 2718, one of several ferry-related bills being considered this session.

The bill would require the Transportation Commission – which determines ferry fares – to consider “the desirability of reasonable fares for persons using the ferry system to commute daily to work and other frequent users who live in ferry-dependent communities.”

Appleton said she isn’t sure why the language was removed from the law, but the effort to put it back in hasn’t been easy.

The bill initially wasn’t going to be heard, but lawmakers struck a deal – by changing the the word “shall” to “may” – that cleared the way to a public hearing at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in the House Committee on Transportation.

Appleton said she would have preferred retaining the stronger language, but said the bill if it passes would still serve its purpose.

“Basically this means that if the Transportation Commission ever tries to remove (frequent user fares), we’ll know about it, and there will be a public hearing,” she said. “It’s a win-win.”

Among other things, Bill 2358 last year froze fares until at least Sept. 1, 2009.

In the meantime, several efforts are underway as part of a larger effort to fix ferry financing, major deficiencies in which were detailed last year in a Legislature-directed study.

A commuter survey is being conducted to better understand how riders use the ferry system.

The results will be used to help determine future fare structures.

Peak pricing – which would alter fares to encourage ridership outside of what are now the busiest runs – is among the options being considered.

That idea doesn’t sit well with many daily commuters, or with Appleton, who said it would unfairly penalize those who rely the most on the ferry system.

“I don’t believe in peak pricing,” Appleton said. “It isn’t fair to Kitsap County workers because many of them can’t change their business hours.”

As it stands now, frequent ferry users get breaks at the farebox by purchasing special passes.

Walk-on passengers save 20 percent year round by buying the passes; drivers with passes save 20 percent in the winter and 45 percent during the ferry system’s peak season, between May and October.

About one third of the ferry system’s 24 million riders bought commuter passes in 2006.

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