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Legislature passes ferry fare freeze

Rolfes brokers a deal to forestall future increases while WSF finances are studied.

Ferry riders will feel a bit of financial turbulence this spring – but after that, expect two years of smooth sailing.

The state Legilstature passed a bill late Friday that would would freeze fares until October 2009 after the scheduled 2.5 percent fare hike goes into effect May 1. Rep. Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Democrat, brokered the deal and says Gov. Chris Gregoire has indicated she will sign the measure into law.

“The agreed-upon fare freeze will save ferry riders upwards of $55 million and give us a two-and-a-half-year window to open the system wide and cut costs,” said Rolfes. “This is the first successful fare freeze that we have seen since 2000, and trust me, this discussion is far from over.”

Riders have seen ticket prices increase more than 70 percent through annual hikes over the last seven years.

Rolfes’ bill, which passed the House but struggled in the Senate, would have held fares steady for one year while Washington State Ferries underwent a financial assessment to eliminate unnecessary capital and operating costs, increase ridership during off-peak hours and improve long-term planning.

Despite strong support from the three senators representing Kitsap County, including Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island), north Puget Sound senators feared a fare freeze could endanger services for Whidbey Island and the San Juan Islands.

Gov. Chris Gregoire stepped in on Thursday when the conflict threatened to stall passage of the state transportation budget. In a private meeting, Rolfes struck a compromise with Sen. Harriet Spanel (D-Bellingham) and other key north sound senators.

“I liked my bill better, but what we agreed upon is reasonable,” Rolfes said. “We had a good discussion and at least the freeze will last longer than I originally proposed.”

Additional provisions were added to bar the use of ferry fares on capital expenses and to increase ferry-rider input into fare and operation decisions.

“The other major victory is in requiring the transportation commission to conduct market surveys of ferry riders and hold public hearings in the communities that will be impacted,” Rolfes said. “The people who are affected need a voice in the decision-making process. This bill does that.”

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