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Ferry fare hike goes into effect June 3Legislators report progress on a new budget to keep the system afloat.
"A $3.35 billion transportation budget that preserves existing ferry service in the Central Sound region sailed through the House Transportation Committee this week, and now heads to the full House for a vote.And on Thursday, the Transportation Commission finally approved the 20 percent ferry fare increases recommended by the Tariff Policy Committee. The across-the-board increase will take effect June 3. The peak-season surcharge to car-driver fares will kick in on May 13.Legislators aren't sure yet when the full House is expected to vote on the budget, which scraped together $507 million for Washington State Ferries (WSF) - well shy of the more than $600 million recommended earlier this year by the Joint Legislative Task Force on Ferries, according to lawmakers. Things are really down to the bare bones in this budget, said Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo), a member of the House Transportation Committee.Woods says she hopes amendments she helped introduce to the budget will produce efficiencies within WSF and generate additional revenue for the marine division.Doing so would be a direct benefit to ferry commuters and taxpayers, Woods said.The budget allocates $185 million for the preservation and ongoing maintenance of WSF vessels and terminals. The remainder is slated for the regular operation of WSF.All told, the allocations mean car ferry service in the Puget Sound over the next two years can continue at today's levels, as well as weekday passenger-only ferry service from Vashon and Bremerton to downtown Seattle. Like the Senate transportation budget, the House-crafted WSF budget assumes that increased fares will raise an additional $30 million over the biennium.The across-the-board increase approved this week is expected to raise some $10.6 million per year, which would provide only about two-thirds of the necessary $30 million. WSF spokesperson Pat Patterson said Friday than another general fare increase will likely be required next spring.Clearly we need to generate more revenue, Patterson said. The Tariff Policy Committee will examine the falloff in ridership after this increase takes effect, and make a recommendation on the next increase.The TPC, chaired by Alice Tawresey of Bainbridge Island, had recommended increasing fares enough to recover 80 percent of auto-ferry operational costs from fares, up from the present 62 percent.Initially, the TPC had proposed specific increases over the next six years. But because of uncertainty over the degree to which ridership might change if fares were increased, the committee decided to hold off on any specific recommendations for future years until the effect of the first hike could be evaluated, Tawresey said.The House budget also relies on a $30 million allocation from the state's general operating budget. According to Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island), the House budget allots $20 million in general-fund revenue to ferry operations this year, and $10 million next year.The Senate budget called for a $20 million ferry operating subsidy this year, but does not earmark any funds for next year. On April 27, the full House passed its $22.7 billion state budget, which included that appropriation from the general fund.Bill add-onsMuch of the recent wrangling among House Transportation members over the transportation budget centered on the more than 14 proposed amendments issued by lawmakers. Only five passed muster at the committee level, however, and three of those are proposals issued by Kitsap representatives.One amendment written by both Woods and Rockefeller, which was later accepted, called for directing WSF staff to determine how much revenue could be raised by expanding the amount of advertising aboard the vessels.Already, WSF vessels carry advertising in the form of tourist brochures, and last year WSF raised more than $150,000 by carrying that information.Woods also proposed an amendment that would allow other businesses outside ferry terminals to sell ferry tickets, so commuters can avoid bottlenecks at the terminal offices where tickets are now sold.The House also passed a joint Woods-Rockefeller plan to conduct a study of a terminal offices where tickets are now sold.The House also passed a joint Woods-Rockefeller plan to conduct a study of a WSF maintenance facility located at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge, and possibly relocate some or even all of that facility. The Eagle Harbor facility is slated to receive $5.2 million in improvements, beginning with $745,000 in upgrades this year.The amendment would put off that work until the state can study the feasibility and convenience associated with the work, compared with the benefits of relocating the facility altogether.It's time to sit down with the Puget Sound Naval Station and say 'We're at a crossroads, where are you?' Wood said.Some Bainbridge officials have expressed interest in seeing the maintenance facility moved to Bremerton, where the PSNS has unused capacity. The city would then have a tract of waterfront land that could be used for water-related business and recreation. While Rockefeller said he favors a study of the Eagle Harbor facility by an entity other than the WSF itself - legislative staff would conduct the proposed study - he does not see total relocation of the ferry maintenance facility as an option.The upland facility is antiquated, and needs major renovations, he said. But the system doesn't just need the facility, it needs the harbor itself. A safe harbor with acres of water is an irreplaceable resource. "