Ferry fare hike looms, again

Rising fuel costs may mean another fare hike for ferry riders.

The Washington State Trans­portation Commission last week directed the ferry system to cover a $10 million shortfall blamed on the high cost of diesel fuel.

Fare increases between 5 percent and 20 percent are now under consideration, as well as capital improvement cutbacks and asking the state Legislature for more money.

“The purpose of our action was to consider if there needs to be a fuel surcharge,” said commission member Bob Distler, who cited earlier Washington State Ferries fuel predictions that estimated diesel at $2.06 a gallon. That rate has surged to about $2.71 a gallon. “Something needs to be done because we’ve seen a one-third increase in fuel expenditures.”

The WSF Tariff Advisory Committee will likely convene soon to review WSF’s finances and possibly recommend increased ticket prices. Riders last month saw a 6 percent increase.

According to Bainbridge Island Ferry Advisory Committee, WSF has hiked fares by about 70 percent since 2000. That was the year voters approved Initiative 695, which slashed the state motor-vehicle excise tax to $30.

The measure nearly gutted public transportation funding and forced the state to rely more on ticket prices to keep ferries running.

But an additional increase at the fare box will be too much for riders, local legislators say.

“Ridership’s down and people are struggling,” said Rep. Beverly Woods, a Kingston Republican. “We need to look elsewhere and say ‘no’ to raising fares. That should always be our last resort.”

Woods’ 23rd Legislative District colleague, Rep. Sherry Appleton agrees.

“It’s about real people being priced out of their lifestyles and livelihoods,” the Poulsbo Democrat said. “It’s one more wage earner who can no longer afford to ride the ferry to work in Seattle, one more elderly person who can no longer afford to see the doctor in Seattle, one more family who can no longer afford to cross the water to enjoy a Saturday in the city.”

Woods favors a hard look at WSF finances to boost overall financial sustainability.

Cutbacks in planned ferry terminal and vessel improvements may also fill the fuel gap, she said.

“For a commuter, I think they’d rather have lower fares than a more modern terminal,” she said. “We need to have terminals that are safe and clean and have capacity, but beyond that, we need to watch how much we spend.”

Earlier this year, the ferry system received $17 million from the state for rising fuel costs. Woods opposes another infusion from the state coffers.

“We just gave them $17 million so they wouldn’t have to raise fares because of fuel prices,” she said.

But a state government flush with cash will likely find it hard to justify not passing some more along, said Bainbridge Island Ferry Advisory Committee chair Martha Burke.

“I think the legislature will take more leadership on this because they’re in pretty good financial shape,” she said.

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