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Frank talk by ferry friends

"This space has hurled its share of brickbats at those officials who we have elected when we think they have not served us well.Today we bestow a bouquet on three islanders we didn't elect, but who have done this community great service.The laurels go to Forrest Six, Kirk Robinson and especially to Alice Tawresey, members and the chair, respectively, of the Tariff Policy Committee that recommends ferry fares.We all know the story by now. The $750 million Motor Vehicle Excise Tax was repealed in 1999 by voter approval of Initiative 695, then by legislative action. That cost the Washington State Ferries 25 percent of its operating budget and 80 percent of its capital budget.While the Legislature dithered over platitudes about living within your budget and respecting the will of the people, the TPC realized the simple and obvious truth - the money for the ferry system has to come from somewhere.And the group made the judgment that ferry users needed to make a significant and visible contribution to solving the money problem.The TPC set a target of recovering 80 percent of the system's operating costs at the farebox - up from the present 62 percent. That recovery was picked because a consultant projected that if fares went higher, ridership would begin dropping off fast enough that total revenue would decline.Then the TPC bit the bullet. It proposed an immediate 20 percent fare increase on most runs - much higher for the passenger-only ferries - and further increases in the coming years.The committee held meetings around Puget Sound, which were attended by some 1,500 people, and received at least that much mail. All told, the proposal drew more than 3,200 responses.And the TPC listened. It was persuaded by the arguments that doubling passenger-only fares would depress ridership to the point that the Legislature might well kill the program altogether. So it scaled back that proposed increase dramatically.It heard but was not persuaded by other arguments. It heard that the ferries are highways and therefore should be free, but it recognized the political reality. Floating highways are expensive to operate and serve only a small portion of the state. And it also heard that ferries are transit systems, and that no transit system recovers 80 percent of its expenses at the farebox. True enough, the TPC agreed. But it also observed that transit systems are subsidized by local-option taxes, not by statewide funds. At the end of the day, there was simply no way to duck the responsibility, or to fob it off on someone else. So the committee recommended the fare increases, which the Transportation Commission seems likely to enact.The payoff may have come last Friday, when the state Senate passed a transportation budget that was stunningly generous to the ferry system. Despite the loss of MVET revenue, the Senate budget gives the ferry system what it needs to maintain the current level of service for the next two years.Was Senate funding a reward to ferry users for being a partial solution to the budget shortfall? We think so. We certainly hope that those who try to help will be treated at least as well as those who merely complain.So yes, ferry fares will rise. It isn't pleasant, but it is necessary. For having the courage to say so, hats off to Forrest, Kirk and Alice. "

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